Supreme Court Weighs the Power of Congress

by
February 24, 2011

By ADAM LIPTAK, The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday in a case that touched on the most pressing constitutional question of the day: just how much power does Congress have to regulate matters ordinarily left up to the states? The fate of President Obama’s health care law will turn on how that question is answered.

But based on the justices’ comments, the lurid facts of the case and the odd posture in which it reached the court, the eventual decision will probably offer only limited guidance on the health care law’s prospects.

The case heard Tuesday, Bond v. United States, No. 09-1227, arose from a domestic dispute. Carol A. Bond, a Pennsylvania woman, did not take it well when she learned that her husband was the father of her best friend’s child. She promised to make her former friend’s life “a living hell,” and she drew on her skills as a microbiologist to do so.

Ms. Bond spread harmful chemicals on her friend’s car, mailbox and doorknob. The friend suffered only a minor injury.

Such matters are usually handled by the local police and prosecutors. In Ms. Bond’s case, though, federal prosecutors charged her with using unconventional weapons in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, a treaty concerned with terrorists and rogue states.

At the argument, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. suggested that Congress had gone too far. Suppose, he said, that Ms. Bond had “decided to retaliate against her former friend by pouring a bottle of vinegar in the friend’s goldfish bowl.”

“As I read this statute, Justice Alito said, “that would be a violation of this statute, potentially punishable by life imprisonment.”

Ms. Bond’s lawyer, Paul D. Clement, said that a chemical used by his client was not much more exotic than vinegar. “There is something sort of odd about the government’s theory that says that I can buy a chemical weapon at Amazon.com,” he said.

In her appeal to the federal appeals court in Philadelphia, Ms. Bond argued that Congress did not have the constitutional power to use a chemical weapons treaty to address a matter of a sort routinely handled by state authorities. She cited the 10th Amendment, which says that “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.”

To read more, visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/us/politics/23scotus.html?_r=3&smid=tw-nytimes&seid=auto

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