Prosecutorial Discretion in Bond

(Richard M. Re) Who would have thought that Bond v. United States — today’s much-awaited decision involving the Chemical Weapons Convention — would have so much to do with prosecutorial discretion? Yet prosecutorial discretion appeared repeatedly in the Court’s consideration of the case, serving different purposes each time.

First, the fact of prosecutorial discretion is the critical factor explaining why Bond even arose. By way of background, the defendant Bond used certain harmful chemicals to retaliate against a romantic rival. Bond was then prosecuted for violating federal legislation implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention. In Bond, the Court relied on federalism canons to conclude that the implementing legislation didn’t reach Bond’s conduct. A major theme of the majority opinion is that Bond is an “unusual” and “curious case” that is “worlds apart” from what anyone would have associated with the Chemical Weapons Convention or its implementing legislation. Another major theme is that the “common law assault” at issue in Bond would normally be handled by state and local government. But if that’s so, then why was the defendant federally prosecuted? The answer is that the federal prosecutors involved in the case concluded — contrary to the intuitive view — that the Convention’s implementing legislation properly applied.

Second, prudent use of prosecutorial discretion was a source of comfort to the majority, since it meant that the Court’s statutory holding wouldn’t have harmful effects. “[W]ith the exception of this unusual case,” Bond noted, “the Federal Government itself has not looked to section 229 to reach purely local crimes.” Instead, federal authorities had previously used the relevant statutory authority primarily to prosecute things akin to “assassination, terrorism, and acts with the potential to cause mass suffering,” and the Court declined to “disrupt the Government’s authority to prosecute such offenses.”

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