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The Toxic Revenger: Supreme Court Considers a Crime of Passion

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case that has it all: passion, betrayal, revenge, and hair loss. There’s something for everyone, including constitutional law scholars, political strategists, readers of supermarket tabloids, and groups pushing to repeal last year’s health care reform law.

The case is Bond v. United States. It stems from a crime of passion in the small town of Lansdale, Pa., some 30 miles north of Philadelphia, where, in 2006, microbiologist Carol Bond discovered that her best friend was pregnant — with Bond’s husband’s child.

Bond did not react well to this news. In a brief to the court, her lawyer described her state of mind at the time: “This double betrayal brought back painful memories of her own father’s infidelities and caused petitioner to suffer an emotional breakdown. She experienced an ‘intense level of anxiety and depression,’ started to lose her hair, and suffered occasional panic attacks.”

Bond, then 40, vowed to get revenge. Using highly toxic chemicals — some stolen from the chemical lab where she worked, some purchased online — Bond attempted to poison her former friend, Myrlinda Hayes. On 24 separate occasions, she spread the chemicals on Hayes’ car, doorknob, and mailbox. (Hayes emerged from the experience uninjured, with the exception of a burned thumb.)

Bond was subsequently arrested, charged and convicted of possessing and using a chemical weapon – and thereby violating a federal statute created in 1993 under the Chemical Weapons Convention. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in federal prison.

Bond then took her case to a federal appeals court in Philadelphia, where she argued that prosecuting her under a federal chemical weapons statute, rather than in state court, was a violation of her rights under the Tenth Amendment, which limits federal authority. As her attorney Paul Clement, a former solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, later put it, “Domestic disputes resulting from marital infidelities and culminating in a thumb burn are appropriately handled by local law enforcement authorities.”

The appeals court rejected the case on the grounds that Bond, as an individual, did not have the right to challenge a federal statute. In its ruling, the three-judge panel said, “A private party lacks standing to claim that the federal government is impinging on state sovereignty in violation of the Tenth amendment, absent the involvement of a state or its officers.”

The Supreme Court agreed in October to take up the case. (In an unexpected twist, the federal government announced it had reversed course to side with Bond, and no longer felt she lacked standing to defend herself. The Department of Justice recused itself, and independent attorney Stephen McAllister was brought in from Topeka, Kansas, to defend the case in the government’s place.)

The 28-word Tenth Amendment reads: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Constitutional scholars should not expect a definitive answer on its scope. “The question for the Supreme Court,” explains NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal, “is whether Bond, as a private party and not a state, has standing to argue that the law encroaches on state sovereignty in violation of the Tenth Amendment.”

The ruling could have broader implications on the limitations of federal power. If the justices agree that Bond has a constitutional right to argue her case against the government, the result could be an increase in the number of lawsuits brought by individuals alleging their Tenth Amendment rights are being violated. And groups involved in the effort to repeal President Obama’s health care law will be looking to the case for clues on how the justices might view the constitutionality of that legislation, should it make its way to the Supreme Court.

A decision in Bond v. United States is expected by June.

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