International law is a tricky and enigmatic subject. Nations pass treaties for various reasons; in some cases, for trade purposes and in others, for keeping certain fundamental rights safe in regions where governance may not be as sound. The difficulty in enforcing some of these treaties lies in bureaucratic discrepancies and certain domestic sovereign practices.
The Supreme Court of the United States, may soon be playing a larger role in the United States' foreign policy and treaty powers. Yesterday, in the case of Bond v. United States, the Court took up two key questions - Does Congress have the authority to enact legislation that enforces a treaty but goes beyond the scope of the treaty and intrudes on traditional state prerogatives, and can the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act be properly interpreted so that it does not apply to ordinary poisoning cases, which have been traditionally handled by state and local authorities?
A brief background to the case. Carol Anne Bond discovered that her husband and a friend, Myrlinda Haynes, were sharing an intimate relationship with each other. Upon learning this, Ms. Bond acquired certain chemicals made available to her through her employer and applied these chemicals to door knobs and other surfaces with which Ms. Haynes would come into contact. As a result of the applications, Ms. Haynes suffered minor burns. Ms. Bond was apprehended by law enforcement through surveillance camera recordings. She was then subjected to a federal investigation for violating the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998 administered by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), a treaty ratified by the United States Senate which set to ban all forms of chemical weapons.
Article II, Section II of the Constitution authorizes the president to make treaties with the ratification of two thirds of the senate. The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution states that federal law is the "supreme law of the land" and treaties are an extension of the Supremacy Clause. There have been cases before the Supreme Court previously examining certain treaties, notably Missouri v Holland. In this case, the Court maintained that treaties are the law of the land and supersede state laws.
Yet, here in Bond, the Court is again faced with an issue of federalism which goes beyond the scope of our sovereign domestic legal/political system. Now, the justices may be determining Congress's authority in entering and enforcing treaties. The nature of this treaty is such that Congress was forced to enact a law pursuant to the international treaty. Ms. Bond is
arguing that the Constitution does not give Congress that power because
Congress could then override several state laws using international
treaties which would violate the Tenth Amendment. As I have said many
times, federalism is the root of nearly all of our domestic disputes.
Unfortunately, in this instance, it may provide far more vast consequences
as our stature in the international community may be further smeared.
This could not come at a worse time in the United States' foreign relations with the potential disarmament of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile (which came up during the oral argument). Many justices argued the scope of the treaty is too broad with Justice Samuel Alito arguing that chocolate is a banned substance under the treaty in question because it is harmful to dogs and the treaty specifically bans substances harmful to animals.
These technical aspects make enforcing treaties nationwide so difficult because each nation has certain issues hindering implementation. When examining Bond, it seems clear the Justices will rule in favor of the plaintiff shrinking Congress's power. However, the Court's final ruling may not have a crippling bearing on overall treaty making but rather on the way Congress enforces certain treaties domestically. If this is the case, treaties such as the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act may vastly differ from nation to nation potentially invalidating its chief purpose. This could set a dangerous precedent for our nation but also provides important insight into the overall treaty making process. The United States may have to reexamine how they make treaties to ensure its chief goal is maintained in the future.