By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A majority of Supreme Court justices on Tuesday signaled concern that the federal government may have wrongly used a chemical weapons law to prosecute a Pennsylvania microbiologist convicted of trying to poison her husband's lover.
Seemingly taken from the storyline of a television police drama, the tale, in fact, raises a core question about the power of Congress to enact laws implementing international treaties the U.S. government has signed.
The justices appeared divided on this point as they probed lawyers with a series of hypothetical questions that touched upon a wide array of subjects, including gay marriage and disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. The U.S. government's current interest in preventing the Syrian government from possessing chemical weapons was mentioned repeatedly.
Carol Anne Bond admitted to trying to poison her former friend, Myrlinda Haynes, with toxic chemicals she took from work. Bond sprinkled lethal compounds on Haynes' mailbox, car door handles and house doorknob between November 2006 and June 2007.
Bond was prosecuted by the federal government under a 1998 U.S. law banning the use of chemical weapons other than for a "peaceful purpose." Suspects in local crimes are usually prosecuted under state criminal laws.
During a one-hour oral argument, a majority of the nine justices appeared skeptical of the government's decision to prosecute Bond. Questions raised by Justice Stephen Breyer, one of the liberals on the court, related to some of the same concerns voiced by the court's conservatives, including regular swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy. The most likely outcome would be a narrow ruling that throws out Bond's conviction while leaving the law intact.
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, representing the Obama administration, told the court it was "unimaginable" that Congress would enact a law that would give the federal government police powers normally reserved for the states.
"It also seems unimaginable you would bring this prosecution," Kennedy said, in a comment reflecting hostility by some on the court to the administration's stance.
Some of the conservative justices appeared eager to discuss the broader implications of Congress encroaching on state authority through enactment of legislation implementing treaties.
Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, wondered whether Congress could ratify a treaty that would force all states to allow same-sex marriage.
As marriage is usually a matter of state law, such a law would be "dragging the Congress into areas where it has never been before," Scalia said.
Justice Samuel Alito opted for a more humorous hypothetical example, citing the tradition of distributing candy on Halloween.
"Would it shock you if I told you that a few days ago my wife and I distributed toxic chemicals to a great number of children?," he asked. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs, Alito noted.
Verrilli, visibly irritated with some of the lighthearted questions, responded to the probing from the bench by saying that a ruling undermining Congress' authority to implement treaties would have significant foreign policy implications for the U.S. government.
"This is serious business," he said.
Verrilli noted the U.S. government's work to stop Syria from using chemical weapons.
"One of the very things we are trying to sort out right now in Syria under the chemical weapons convention is where the line is between peaceful uses and warlike uses," he said.
A ruling against the government could also undermine the authority of U.S. negotiators in future treaty discussions, he added.
Bond's lawyer, Paul Clement, proposed a compromise. He said the court could make a distinction between chemicals like sarin gas, which is "inherently a chemical weapon," and others that are generally used for peaceful purposes. Of the nine justices, Breyer appeared most keen to take that kind of approach. He noted that there are many chemicals used for peaceful purposes, including those used by athletes like Lance Armstrong, that have "absolutely nothing to do with chemical weapons."
Bond was sentenced to six years in prison after entering a guilty plea that gave her a right to appeal. The poison burned Haynes' thumb but she was otherwise unharmed.
A ruling is expected by the end of June. The case is Bond v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-158.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; editing by Howard Goller and Jackie Frank)