WASHINGTON — A melodramatic love triangle begat a ham-handed revenge poisoning. That led to what one justice called an "unimaginable" federal prosecution of the scorned wife under a law enacted to implement a global chemical weapons treaty.
And that in turn led Tuesday to a grand constitutional showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court that at times seemed emblematic of the nation's long-running political debate over the limits of federal power.
At the center of the case is a question of when the federal government may intrude on powers traditionally given to the states — in this case, police powers. And a majority of the justices bristled at Solicitor General Donald Verrilli's argument that courts have little place to question that intrusion when it takes the form of legislation adopted by Congress to carry out a treaty.
Justice Samuel Alito said most people would be "flabbergasted" to know how federal prosecutors used the law targeting terrorists who use chemical weapons to go after Carol Anne Bond, a central Pennsylvania microbiologist.
Bond, who cannot have children, was outraged in 2006 when she learned that her best friend, Myrlinda Haynes, was pregnant by Bond's husband, Clifford. Bond ordered a rare blend of chemicals, partly off the Internet, and over the next several months tried to poison Haynes 24 times by putting them on her doorknob, car and, critically, mailbox.
Haynes suffered nothing more than a burn on her fingers, and local prosecutors would not pursue charges. They suggested she call in the feds, and postal inspectors set up surveillance that identified Bond as her assailant.
Federal prosecutors charged Bond with violating the 1998 Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act, a law based on the chemical weapons ban treaty that is signed by all but four of the world's nation.
Bond pleaded guilty while reserving the right to appeal her conviction. The case has been through so many courts — there was a previous stop at the Supreme Court — that she has completed her prison term (and reunited with her husband, lawyers say).
"It also seems unimaginable that you would bring this prosecution," Justice Anthony Kennedy told Verrilli.