Tag: treaty power

Chief Justice Roberts Again Rewrites Law, Avoids Duty to Hold Government’s Feet to the Constitutional Fire

In today’s ruling in Bond v. United States, the Supreme Court was obviously right to reverse as federal overreaching the conviction of a woman who used certain chemicals to attack her husband’s paramour. This was a “purely local crime,” and the decision to prosecute Carol Anne Bond for it under a law that implements the international Chemical Weapons Convention was an abuse of federal power.

But in deciding the case so narrowly, creatively reinterpreting an expansive federal statute instead of reaching the constitutional issue at the heart of this bizarre case, the Court’s majority abdicated its duty to check the other branches of government. Bond was a case about the scope of the treaty power—can Congress do something pursuant to a treaty that it can’t otherwise do?—and yet the majority opinion avoided that discussion altogether in the name of a faux judicial minimalism. That’s not surprising given that its author is Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to avoid hard calls whenever possible. (Sometimes the practical result is still the right one, as here, sometimes it’s disastrously not, as in NFIB v. Sebelius, the Obamacare case, and sometimes even Roberts finds it impossible to avoid the Court’s constitutional duty, as in Citizens United and Shelby County.)

It was thus left to Justice Scalia, joined by Justices Thomas and Alito (in part), to do the hard work—to make those balls-and-strikes calls that Roberts promised at his confirmation hearing—and repudiate Missouri v. Holland, the 1920 case that’s been understood to mean that the federal government can indeed expand its own power by agreeing to do so with a foreign treaty partner. (Scalia’s opinion tracks Cato’s amicus brief closely, and cites my colleague Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s groundbreaking work in this area.)

One other takeaway here is that the Obama administration has yet again lost unanimously at the Supreme Court, adding to its record number of goose eggs—particularly in cases involving preposterous assertions of federal power. Here Chief Justice Roberts provides the apt langiappe: “The global need to prevent chemical warfare does not require the federal government to reach into the kitchen cupboard, or to treat a local assault with a chemical irritant as the deployment of a chemical weapon.”

Once More Unto the Treaty-Power Breach

The Carol Anne Bond saga continues. Now in her second trip to the Supreme Court—and with Cato’s support for the fourth time—Bond is still hoping to avoid federal punishment stemming from her attempts to get back at her erstwhile best friend for having an affair with her husband.

Bond, a microbiologist, spread toxic chemicals on her friend’s car and mailbox. Postal inspectors discovered this plot after they caught Bond on film stealing from the woman’s mailbox. Rather than leave this caper to local law enforcement, however, a federal prosecutor reached into his bag of tricks and charged Bond with violating a statute that implements U.S. treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Yes, rather than being charged with attempted murder and the like, Bond is essentially accused of chemical warfare.

Bond challenged the federal government’s power to charge her with a crime, arguing that Congress lacks constitutional authority to pass general criminal statutes and cannot somehow acquire that authority through a treaty. Before a court could reach this issue, however, there was a question whether Bond could even make that argument under the Tenth Amendment, which reaffirms that any powers not delegated to Congress are reserved to the states or to the people. On Bond’s first trip to the Supreme Court, the Court unanimously accepted the argument, offered in an amicus brief by Cato and the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, that there’s no reason in constitutional structure or history that someone can’t use the Tenth Amendment to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted.

On remand to the Philadelphia-based U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and now with standing to challenge that law, Bond raised the argument that Congress’s limited and enumerated powers cannot be increased by treaties. We again filed in that case in support of Bond. The Third Circuit disagreed, however—if reluctantly—based on one sentence written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 1920 case of Missouri v. Holland, which has been interpreted to mean that treaties can indeed expand Congress’s powers. With Cato supporting her bid to return to the Supreme Court on that treaty power question, Bond’s case reached the high court.

Now, in a brief authored by professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz and joined by the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, the Atlantic Legal Foundation, and former attorney general Edwin Meese III—in what we hope will be our final filing in the case—we argue that a treaty cannot give Congress the constitutional authority to charge Bond. Allowing Congress to broaden its powers via treaties is an astounding manner in which to interpret a document that creates a federal government of limited powers.

Not only would this mean that the president has the ability to expand federal power by signing a treaty, but it would mean that foreign governments could change federal power by abrogating previously valid treaties—thus removing the constitutional authority from certain laws. This perverse result makes Missouri v. Holland a doctrinal anomaly that the Court must either overrule or clarify. We also point out how the most influential argument supporting Holland is based on a clear misreading of constitutional history that has been repeated without question.

Although Holland is nearly 100 years old, there is thus no reason to adhere to a precedent that is not only blatantly incorrect, but could severely threaten our system of government. We’re in a constitutional quagmire with respect to the treaty power, one that can only be escaped by limiting or overturning Missouri v. Holland.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Bond v. United States in October.

The President Can’t Expand Federal Power by Signing a Treaty

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Trevor Burrus.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Bond, a case that seems right out of a soap opera. Carol Anne Bond learned that her best friend was having an affair with her husband, so she spread toxic chemicals on the woman’s car and mailbox. Postal inspectors discovered this plot after they caught Bond on film stealing from the woman’s mailbox.

Rather than leave this caper to local law enforcement to resolve, however, a federal prosecutor charged Bond with violating a statute that implements U.S. treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Bond pled guilty and was sentenced, but she reserved the right to appeal her conviction on the ground that the statute at issue violates the Tenth Amendment—in that her offense was local in nature and not properly subject to federal prosecution.

She won the first part of that appeal process: The Supreme Court unanimously accepted the argument offered in an amicus brief by Cato and the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence that there’s no reason in constitutional structure or history that someone can’t use the Tenth Amendment to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted.

On remand to the Philadelphia-based U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Bond (now with standing to challenge that law) raised the argument that Congress’s limited and enumerated powers cannot be increased by treaties. We again filed in that case in support of Bond. The Third Circuit disagreed, however—if reluctantly—based on one sentence by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Missouri v. Holland (1920) that has been interpreted to mean that Congress’s constitutional powers can indeed be expanded by treaties.

Writing separately, Judge Ambro agreed that Holland clearly addressed the issue but “urge[d] the Supreme Court to provide a clarifying explanation of its statement” regarding the treaty power. Bond has thus brought her case back to the Supreme Court, asking the Court to clarify and cabin Holland.

In this, our third brief in the case, we are joined again by the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence in arguing—again based on the work of Georgetown law professor and Cato senior fellow Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz—that allowing Congress to broaden its powers via treaties is an astounding manner in which to interpret a document that creates a federal government of limited powers. Not only would this mean that the Executive has the ability to expand federal power by signing a treaty, but it would mean that foreign governments could change federal power by abrogating a previously valid treaty—thus removing the constitutional authority from certain laws.

We also point out how the most influential argument supporting Holland is based on a clear misreading of constitutional history that has been repeated without question and that the ruling is in deep tension with other cases. We’re in a constitutional quagmire with respect to the treaty power that can only be escaped by limiting or overturning Missouri v. Holland.

The Court will decide this fall whether to Bond v. United States.

The Federal Government Can’t Give Itself More Power Just By Signing a Treaty

With ObamaCare, immigration, affirmative action, gay marriage, and the other hot-button issues rolling through our courts this year, some of you may have overlooked a little case on the Treaty Power, United States v. Bond, which was at the Court last year and may well make it back next year.

I’ve covered Bond before, and Cato has filed two amicus briefs in the case (before the Supreme Court and then in the Third Circuit on remand). As I described it last year, Bond is “your typical sordid tale of adultery, toxic chemicals, and federalism.” It’s a bizarre scenario you can read about in the previous links, but the issue that has drawn Cato’s attention—and that of Paul Clement, who remains Mrs. Bond’s counsel—is whether Congress can regulate the conduct of something solely because the United States is party to a treaty regarding that subject.

That is, even though Congress does not have the power to pass, for example, general criminal statutes, if Congress ratifies a treaty calling for such statutes, the dominant reading of an old precedent called Missouri v. Holland is that its power increases beyond constitutional limits. Not only would this mean that the Executive has the ability to expand congressional power by signing a treaty, but it would mean that foreign governments could change congressional power by abrogating a previously valid treaty—thus removing the constitutional authority from certain laws. Cato’s briefs have taken issue with such an interpretation of the Treaty Power, tracking the argument made by new Cato senior fellow (and Georgetown law professor) Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz in his magisterial Harvard Law Review article, “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Earlier this month, the Third Circuit upheld Mrs. Bond’s conviction because the statute under which she was convicted duly implemented the Chemical Conventions Act and a lower court can’t overrule Missouri v. Holland. The court cited Cato’s brief and Nick’s article, however, and a concurrence by Judge Thomas Ambro, after also citing John Eastman’s article about the case in the Cato Supreme Court Review, specifically called on the Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of Missouri v. Holland.

The Court will have an opportunity to do so, with Paul Clement currently preparing a cert petition, which Cato will again support. In the meantime, you can listen in on a teleforum the Federalist Society is having about the case, featuring Prof. Rosenkranz (Fed Soc membership required, which costs $5-50 per year).

Justice Scalia Reads Cato’s Amicus Briefs

During Wednesday’s oral argument in Golan v. Holder (transcript here), Justice Scalia said something that was at once obvious and startling: 

It seems to me Congress either had the power to do this under the Copyright Clause or it didn’t.  I don’t think that powers that Congress does not have under the Constitution can be acquired by simply obtaining the agreement of the Senate, the President and Zimbabwe. I do not think a treaty can expand the powers of the Federal government. 

This proposition is obvious, because the Constitution vests Congress with limited, enumerated powers, which can only be increased by constitutional amendment, not by treaty.  But Scalia’s words were also startling because Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said exactly the opposite almost a century ago—or at least that’s how his opinion has been read—in the canonical case of Missouri v. Holland.  We filed a brief arguing that Holmes was wrong, and we are delighted that Justice Scalia agrees.

Thanks to Tim Lee for pointing out this exchange to me before I had a chance to read the transcript and to Georgetown’s Nick Rosenkranz, the principal author of our brief.

The President Can’t Increase Congress’s Power Simply by Signing a Treaty

A lost episode of Jerry Springer found its way into the Supreme Court’s 2010-11 term in the case of United States v. Bond. Mrs. Bond, upset by the pregnancy that resulted from an affair between her husband and her erstwhile best friend, decided to take revenge. A trained microbiologist working at a chemical manufacturer, Mrs. Bond tried to poison her husband’s mistress by dusting her door knobs, mailbox, and car handles with dangerous, possibly lethal chemicals.

Upon being caught by (federal) postal inspectors, Mrs. Bond was charged with violating the law Congress passed to implement an international chemical weapons treaty. (There are no generally applicable federal attempted murder statutes, so prosecutors had to get creative to remain in federal court.)

But if general criminal statutes are beyond Congress’s powers, as even the most ardent federal-power activist must acknowledge, how did Congress have the power to pass the law that ensnared Mrs. Bond? — who, whatever her character flaws, was not selling chemical weapons to terrorists (the treaty’s target). Mrs. Bond thus hoped to challenge her conviction by arguing that Congress did not have the power to pass the law in question.

The Third Circuit, however, ruled that she did not have standing — a legal doctrine defining who has the right to bring a claim — to challenge the law on federalism grounds. Cato filed a Supreme Court brief supporting Mrs. Bond’s position and arguing that it makes no sense to deny standing to someone challenging a law under which she is being prosecuted. The Court unanimously agreed and remanded the case back to the Third Circuit, to finally hear arguments over whether the statute is beyond congressional power.

Cato has now reentered the fray, in a brief authored by Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz and joined by the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence. We again support Mrs. Bond’s claim that the law under which she was charged is beyond Congress’s enumerated powers. The main obstacle to this argument is the 1920 case Missouri v. Holland, a short and not completely clear opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that has been interpreted to mean that Congress can expand its enumerated powers via the Treaty Clause.

In other words, even though Congress does not have the power to pass, for example, general criminal statutes, if Congress ratifies a treaty calling for such statutes, its power increases beyond constitutional limits. We argue that this is an astounding manner in which to interpret a Constitution that creates a federal government of limited powers. Not only would this mean that the Executive has the ability to expand congressional power by signing a treaty, but it would mean that foreign governments could change congressional power by abrogating a previously valid treaty — thus removing the constitutional authority from certain laws. We also point out how the most influential argument supporting Missouri v. Holland is based on a clear misreading of constitutional history and that the ruling is in deep tension with other cases.

On the treaty power, we’re in a constitutional quagmire that can only be escaped by limiting or overturning Missouri v. Holland.  The Third Circuit can’t itself overturn a Supreme Court decision, of course, but it follows our brief, it can at least limit its damage.

Of Course Defendants Can Challenge the Constitutionality of Laws Under Which They’re Prosecuted

Hard cases make bad law, the saying goes.  Well, a bizarre case that the Supreme Court decided unanimously today has set a good precedent for the enforcement of residual Tenth Amendment powers. 

As I described in December when Cato filed a brief in Bond v. United States:

Carol Anne Bond learned that her best friend was having an affair with her husband, so she spread toxic chemicals on the woman’s car and mailbox. Postal inspectors discovered this plot after they caught Bond on film stealing from the woman’s mailbox. Rather than leave this caper to local law enforcement authorities to resolve, however, a federal prosecutor charged Bond with violating a statute that implements U.S. treaty obligations under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Bond pled guilty and was sentenced but now appeals her conviction on the ground that the statute at issue violates the Tenth Amendment – in that her offense was local in nature and not properly subject to federal prosecution. The Third Circuit declined to reach the constitutional question, holding that Bond did not have standing to raise a Tenth Amendment challenge and that, following Supreme Court precedent, a state actor must be a party to the suit in order to challenge the federal government for impinging on state sovereignty. Bond now seeks Supreme Court review on the ground that the statute, as applied to her, is beyond the federal government’s enumerated powers.

Our brief argued that a defendant clearly has standing to challenge the constitutionality of the statute under which she was convicted, but also that lower courts are wrong in assuming that both the president’s power to make treaties and Congress’s power to make laws executing those treaties are unconstrained by the Constitution.  That is, many judges seem to erroneously think that treaties can give the federal government powers it doesn’t otherwise have under the Constitution.

The Court’s ruling today, in a tight opinion by Justice Kennedy, makes clear that individuals can indeed raise Tenth Amendment claims that the federal government has overstepped its enumerated powers.  The Court took no position on the merits of Bond’s constitutional argument – relating to the expansion of federal criminal law via the Treaty Power into areas that should be handled at the state and local levels – but this non-decision is in itself a positive development because it signals that the underlying issue is in dispute.

The Third Circuit is now charged with determining in the first instance whether the law implementing the chemical weapons treaty is “necessary and proper for carrying into execution” the Treaty Power, including whether it’s overbroad if it snares people like Bond.

Even if Bond loses on the merits in the Third Circuit and/or the Supreme Court, however, her case has confirmed the idea that someone directly and particularly harmed by a federal law can challenge that law’s constitutionality.  As Justice Ginsburg said in her concurrence,

a court has no “prudential” license todecline to consider whether the statute under which the defendant has been charged lacks constitutional application to her conduct. And that is so even where the constitutional provision that would render the conviction void is directed at protecting a party not before the Court. ….

In short, a law “beyond the power of Congress,” for any reason, is “no law at all.” Nigro v. United States, 276 U. S. 332, 341 (1928). The validity of Bond’s conviction depends upon whether the Constitution permits Congress to enact §229.  Her claim that it does not must be considered and decided on the merits.

For more on the proper scope of the Treaty Power, I recommend Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz’s “Executing the Treaty Power.”

Update:

Josh Blackman parses Justice Kennedy’s opinion and shows how it tracks the approach that Randy Barnett and Cato have been taking in our Obamacare briefs.