Manhattan Institute Center for Legal Policy intern Meghan Herwig assisted in drafting this post.
Monday's Supreme Court decision in Bond v. United States, which we earlier profiled here, involved a case raising fundamental constitutional questions of federalism and separation of powers. Rather than grappling with these questions, the Court majority ruled on statutory grounds.
Carol Anne Bond, a Pennsylvania microbiologist, attempted to poison her husband after learning that he had impregnated her best friend. She was convicted of violating a U.S. federal statute enacted to implement the Convention on Chemical Weapons, a 1997 treaty intended to prevent the proliferation of chemical weapons. On appeal, Bond's lawyers argued that the law did not apply to Bond's conduct and second that even if it applied it was unconstitutional.
Key to Bond's constitutional claim was whether a treaty signed by the president and ratified by the Senate can expand Congress's legislative powers beyond those otherwise enumerated in the Constitution. A 1920 Court decision authored by Justice Holmes, Missouri v. Holland, had held that for a valid treaty "there can be no dispute about the validity of the statute under Article I, § 8, as a necessary and proper means to execute the powers of the Government" -- without further analysis or authority. A subsequent Court decision, Reid v. Covert, limited this holding such that a treaty obligation could not empower Congress to violate the Bill of Rights. More recent scholarship by Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz has challenged Missouri v. Holland's holding in light of the constitution's text, history, and structure.
While the Supreme Court unanimously overturned Bond's conviction, Chief Justice Roberts's majority opinion, on behalf of six justices, avoided the constitutional question. Roberts reasoned that the Chemical Weapons Convention was not intended to cover minor, local poisoning incidents and determined that Congress could not have intended such a construction of the convention's implementing statute, which would upset the constitutional balance of power between Congress and the states. Roberts thus construed the law narrowly and concluded that the law could not apply to Bond's crime.
Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito each filed separate concurring opinions arguing that the case had to be decided on constitutional rather than statutory grounds. In their view the statute on its face clearly applied to any attempted use of a "toxic chemical" not used for a "peaceful purpose related to an industrial, agricultural, research, medical, or pharmaceutical activity." Justice Scalia's concurrence, joined by Justice Thomas, was particularly specific in its inquiry into the limits of the power given to the President and Senate to "make" treaties -- following significantly the line of argument of Professor Rosenkranz's article -- and called for Missouri v. Holland to be overturned.
At Volokh, Jonathan Adler suggests that the concurring opinions may signal some discontent on the part of the more conservative justices with the Chief Justice's tendency to embrace strained statutory readings to avoid constitutional questions (the so-called doctrine of "constitutional avoidance"). His co-conspirator Ilya Somin reads the tea leaves and suggests that in a future case where the treaty issue is more explicit, the Court may be disposed to overturn Missouri v. Holland and limit the ability of a treaty to expand Congressional legislative authority, and offers further thoughts on the justices' various positions.
In its embrace of constitutional avoidance, the Court's decision is obviously reminiscent of the Chief Justice's lone opinion in NFIB v. Sebelius, in which he construed the individual mandate of the PPACA (Obamacare) to be an exercise of Congress's taxing power rather than its Commerce Clause power to uphold the law's core provision (though in that opinion, the Chief did observe that the mandate was clearly a penalty, and only reached the "tax" construction as an alternative functional ruling through which Congress could have reached the same end). The Bond decision also brings to mind Justice Ginsburg's opinion in Skilling v. U.S., which effectively rewrote the "honest services fraud" statute (construing the law's vague provision to apply only to bribes and kickbacks) to avoid deciding whether it was unconstitutionally vague.
The Bond and Skilling decisions may signal how the Court will rule in the upcoming Yates v. United States. Yates involves the prosecution of a commercial fisherman accused of violating the Sarbanes-Oxley financial reform law's prohibition on destroying, manipulating, or concealing any "record, document or tangible object" to hinder federal investigations -- in the context of throwing back fish that may have been smaller than the minimum size allowed by regulations. While a fish is certainly a "tangible object," the Sarbanes-Oxley law, passed in the wake of the Enron-era corporate scandals, was clearly contemplating document-shredding and similar destruction of corporate records such as that conducted by Enron's auditor, Arthur Andersen. It will be interesting to watch whether the justices in the Bond majority will continue the trend of narrowing criminal statutes beyond their clear terms when the government is applying a broad statutory provision in the criminal-law context.