Friday, June 6, 2014

Thumbs Down

Chief Justice Roberts had a little fun at the expense of government prosecutors in his recent Bond opinion. Bond v. United States, No. 12-158, --- S. Ct. ----, 2014 WL 2440534 (June 2, 2014). The facts themselves are entertaining: real-life desperate housewife Carol Bond sought to exact revenge on her husband's mistress by burning the mistress with chemicals (not funny) in the hope of causing the mistress an "uncomfortable rash." (funny). But the chemicals Bond used are readily visible (which Bond--a microbiologist--must certainly have known), and her rival was able to avoid them, except on one occasion, where the mistress suffered a minor burn on her thumb that she treated by rinsing with water.

For reasons unknown, federal prosecutors charged Bond under a federal chemical weapons statute ostensibly designed to prevent the use of chemical weapons by terrorists and during warfare.* The case ended up at the Supreme Court after Bond entered a conditional guilty plea and was sentenced to serve 6 years in prison.

Applying principles of federalism and statutory construction, Justice Roberts and the majority concluded the chemical weapons statute did not reach Bond's conduct.

A hint of sarcasm underlies the dry methodicalness of Roberts' majority opinion, in which he notes that "no speaker in natural parlance would describe Bond's feud-driven act of spreading irritating 'combat.'" 

According to Roberts, the government's reading of the statute would "sweep in everything from the detergent under the kitchen sink to the stain remover in the laundry room," and would criminalize the conduct of a parent who, "exasperated by the children's repeated failure to clean the goldfish tank...considers poisoning the fish with a few drops of vinegar." (Who knew vinegar could kill goldfish?)

Watch out, Bubbles!

Justice Scalia's concurrence also contains several funnies, including his question about whether an individual who poisons a Congressperson's goldfish to send a menacing message, "a small-time equivalent of leaving a severed horse head in bed," could be prosecuted under the chemical weapons statute. Props to Scalia for the Godfather reference.  Oh, those clever Supremes!

Happy Friday.        

* Bond was also charged with mail theft--she stole an envelope from the mistress' mailbox on one occasion when she deposited some of the powdered chemical there.

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