Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Judge Bernard A. Friedman (E.D. Mich.) ruled that the federal criminal statute banning female genital mutilation exceeded Congress's authority and was therefore invalid. The ruling dismisses those counts in an indictment against Michigan doctors accused of performing the procedure.
The federal criminal ban reads,
Except as provided in subsection (b), whoever knowingly circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.
The government defended the statute under Congress's authority to enforce a treaty and its power to regulate interstate commerce. The court rejected both.
As to the treaty power, the court concluded that the statute wasn't rationally related to applicable provisions in the supporting treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. More, the court ruled that even if it were rationally related to the ICCPR, federalism principles restricted Congress from acting. That's because the U.S. entered the ICCPR with a reservation (valid under international law) that "this Convention shall be implemented by the Federal Government to the extent that it exercises legislative and judicial jurisdiction over the matters covered therein, and otherwise by state and local governments . . . ." And because intrastate criminal law is a traditional area for the states (and not the federal government), the reservation itself restricts Congress from acting. (Judge Friedman suggested that under Bond Congress might have lacked authority even without the reservation--just because the federal statute intrudes on states' exclusive authority over "local criminal activity.")
As to the Commerce Clause, the court ruled that the statute failed: FGM is not commerce (the government produced no evidence that it's done for money); there's no jurisdictional element in the statute; congressional fact-finding on the commercial connection was sparse; and FGM is a local activity that, without more, has no actual connection to the interstate economy.
Congress could certainly go back and fix any of this (if Judge Friedman is upheld on appeal). For example, it could clarify that the ICCPR bans FGM, and remove its reservation. Or it could incentivize states to criminalize FGM. As to the Commerce Clause, it could add a jurisdictional element and fact-finding--exactly what it did after the Court struck the Gun Free School Zone Act in Lopez. (It's not clear why the jurisdictional element wasn't in the act--enacted after Lopez--in the first place.)