Rule of Law

Constitutional Law as Soap Opera: Bond v. United States

In recent days, conservatives have been sounding the alarm over Bond v. United States, a case that my colleague Elizabeth Wydra has described as “a constitutional dispute wrapped in a sad soap opera” – with an extramarital affair, a child born out of wedlock, and a spurned spouse seeking revenge. 

After placing toxic chemicals on various surfaces on or around the home of her husband’s mistress, Carol Anne Bond was prosecuted and convicted under a federal law passed to implement an international chemical weapons treaty.  Ms. Bond’s case is scheduled for argument before the Supreme Court tomorrow, with her side being pressed by conservative super-lawyer Paul Clement.

Colorful facts aside, in the conservatives’ rendering of Bond, the very fabric of the Republic is at stake.  George Will has called it the Term’s “most momentous case,” arguing that the Roberts Court must step in to check a “government run amok.”  The Heritage Foundation warns that the case challenges a key lesson that “Americans are taught from a young age” – that “our government is a government of limited powers.”  And Ted Cruz frames the legal issue as follows: whether the “Treaty Clause is a trump card that defeats all of the remaining structural limitations on the federal government.”  A scary proposition, indeed . . .

But will the Court even get this far?  Ms. Bond’s primary argument is that the chemical weapons treaty and its implementing statute should be read to exclude her conduct – a question of statutory interpretation and hardly the stuff of Tenthers’ dreams.  If the Court decides the case on those grounds, Ms. Bond could very well prevail, while the ruling itself could be rather minor.  The main reason that this case may prove “momentous” is that leading conservative academics, advocates, and legal groups are pushing the Roberts Court to turn this case from an interesting-but-far-from-historic statutory case into a monumental constitutional one. 

While the Court denied a request from Professor Nicholas Rosenkranz and the Cato Institute – the main proponents of the treaty-power-as-dangerous-trump-card theory – for time to press their argument during tomorrow’s hearing, the Court generally rejects such requests from amicus curiae, so we can’t read too much into that.  And, following other recent cases addressing the scope of federal power – including, most prominently, the Affordable Care Act case – there is every reason to believe that the Court may wade into the important constitutional issues lurking just beneath the surface in Bond.

The primary constitutional issue in the case involves the scope of the federal government’s treaty power – a power that was of central interest to George Washington and his Founding-era colleagues – and, in turn, Congress’s power under the Necessary and Proper Clause to pass laws to implement validly enacted treaties.  However, in Bond, conservative legal groups have proceeded to turn the Constitution’s text and history on their head, arguing that the Constitution itself requires a ruling that sharply limits federal power and overturns nearly a century’s worth of precedent – dating back to a 1920 ruling by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.  Indeed, Bond is just one of several cases this Term featuring an aggressive call by conservatives to overturn well-established precedent.  Furthermore, a broad ruling by the Court’s conservatives could significantly limit Congress’s power to enact laws under the Necessary and Proper Clause, generally, opening up new challenges to various government programs and regulations.

In the past, the right’s constitutional arguments may have gone unanswered.  However, increasingly, leading progressive academics and practitioners have begun to stake their own claim to the Constitution’s text and history – the tired battle between the progressive community’s “living Constitution” and Justice Scalia’s “dead Constitution” replaced by new battles between the left and the right over the Constitution’s meaning.  Bond is a clear example of this new dynamic.

Rather than ceding the Constitution’s text and history to conservative legal groups, progressives have fought back in Bond with originalist arguments of their own in briefs authored by some of the progressive community’s leading lights, including Walter Dellinger, Marty Lederman, and Oona Hathaway.  These briefs – as well as one filed by my organization, Constitutional Accountability Center – remind the Court that, in ditching the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation, the Founders sought to create a strong national government with the power to negotiate treaties with foreign nations, pass laws to fulfill those treaty obligations, and, in turn, enhance the young nation’s international reputation.

With progressives fully engaged in the battle over the Constitution’s meaning, the question facing the Court in important constitutional cases is now less about whether the Constitution’s text and history should prevail and more about which side’s version rings truer.