Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A court will not determine the constitutionality of a statute if a case may be disposed of on another basis.
Congress enacted the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1988 as a means of implementing the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling, and Use of Chemical Weapons and on Their Destruction. One portion of the statute made it illegal to knowingly possess or use a chemical weapon. Chemical weapons were defined as a toxic chemical not used for a peaceful purpose related to industry, agriculture, research, medicine, or pharmaceuticals. Defendant spread two toxic chemicals on the car, mailbox, and doorknob of a woman with whom her husband had had an affair in an effort to cause the woman to develop a rash. The woman received a minor chemical burn but was otherwise unharmed. Defendant was prosecuted in federal court for violating the Act. Defendant moved to dismiss the chemical weapon charges on the grounds that the Act exceeded Congress’s authority. The Supreme Court heard the appeal. (The remainder of the procedural posture is omitted from the casebook).
Can a court determine whether a statute is constitutional if the case may be resolved on other grounds?
(Roberts, C.J.) No. A court will not determine the constitutionality of a statute if a case may be disposed of on another basis. Here, the statute is ambiguous because it so broadly defines chemical weapons. The fact that the Act arises out of a treaty about chemical warfare and terrorism also argues against an interpretation that extends to local assaults. The Court finds that under these circumstances, the Act does not apply to purely local crimes without language that demonstrates that Congress intended such a reach. To read the statute to apply in cases like Defendant’s would intrude on the states’ police power without a clear indication from Congress that it intended to do so. The case can therefore be disposed of through the statutory interpretation policies of construction and federalism, and the constitutional question of whether the Act exceeds Congress’s authority need not be reached. (The disposition of the case is omitted from the casebook.)
(Scalia, J.) The constitutional question should be reached, as the Act clearly applies to Defendant, and the statute should be found unconstitutional. Congress has the authority under the Constitution to make treaties, but not the power to implement them.
(Thomas, J.) The Act does apply to Defendant, but the treaty itself is unconstitutional. Under the treaty power granted by the Constitution, any treaty must relate to international matters and cannot be used to regulate purely domestic matters.
(Alito, J.) The Act does apply to Defendant, but the treaty itself exceeds the treaty power granted by the Constitution when it is read to obligate the United States to enact domestic legislation of this type which is usually regulated by states.
The majority of the Court determined that the Act did not unambiguously cover Defendant’s actions, therefore deciding the case on these grounds and never reaching the question of whether the Act itself was constitutional. Justice Scalia argued that, although the Act was broad, it did cover Defendant’s conduct and that the appropriate question became whether the application of the Act in Defendant’s case was constitutional. He argued for the invalidation of the statute in its application here because it was too broad and overreached into police powers reserved to the states.