Missouri v. Holland 252 U.S. 416 (1920)

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MISSOURI v. HOLLAND 252 U.S. 416 (1920)

Missouri v. Holland confirmed the status of treaties as supreme law. Although becoming "perhaps the most famous and most discussed case in the constitutional law of foreign relations" it arose from a narrower Progressive era desire to prevent indiscriminate killing of migratory birds, which key states had proved unable or unwilling to end by themselves. Congress first legislated hunting restrictions in March 1913, but lower federal courts invalidated them on tenth amendment grounds as exceeding the federal government's commerce power, intruding on state police powers, and usurping the states' well-established position in American law as trustees for their citizens of wild animals. The federal government feared the outcome of a final test of the 1913 act sufficiently to delay Supreme Court action. Instead, responding to suggestions from Elihu Root and others, the Wilson administration concluded the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 with Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada). This committed both nations to restrict hunting of the birds, and in the United States President woodrow wilson signed implementing legislation in July 1918.

Several lower courts, including one that had ruled against the 1913 legislation, quickly upheld the 1918 act. In one of these cases the state of Missouri had sought to enjoin federal game warden Ray P. Holland from enforcing the new law. Appealing to the Supreme Court, Missouri argued that because, in the absence of a treaty, the legislation would be clearly invalid on Tenth Amendment grounds, it must fall even with a treaty base, for otherwise constitutional limitations would become a nullity. The Supreme Court upheld the 1918 legislation in a 7–2 vote (but with no written dissent filed).

Echoing the government's defense of the challenged act, the core of Justice oliver wendell holmes's opinion for the Court was a standard federal supremacy argument. Whether or not the 1913 legislation had been invalid, the 1918 act implemented a treaty; because the Constitution explicitly delegated the treaty power to the federal government and gave status as supreme law to treaties made "under the authority of the United States," Tenth Amendment objections had no force.

Less restrained, even cryptic, was Holmes's language, which provided a basis for years of controversy. After questioning whether the requirement that treaties be made under the authority of the United States meant more than observance of the Constitution's prescribed forms for treaty-making, Holmes defended an organic, expansive conception of the Constitution. Its words had "called into life a being the development of which could not have been foreseen completely by the most gifted of its begetters." The Migratory Bird Case needed consideration "in light of our whole experience." The question finally became whether the treaty was "forbidden by some invisible radiation from the general terms of the 10th Amendment." Holmes thereby camouflaged his admissions that treaties must involve matters of national interest and must not contravene specific constitutional prohibitions.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, when the Court often adhered to the doctrine of dual federalism, Missouri v. Holland arguably offered constitutional grounds for otherwise suspect federal legislation if appropriate treaties were concluded. (Proponents of child labor regulation toyed with the approach.) Fears about its potential in this respect lingered into the 1950s, when the case was a frequent target for backers of the bricker amendment. Yet after 1937 the Supreme Court routinely accepted broader interpretations of taxing and spending powers, the commerce clause, and the fourteenth amendment, soin practice the case's importance diminished.

Charles A. Lofgren


Henkin, Louis 1972 Foreign Affairs and the Constitution. Mineola, N.Y.: Foundation Press.

Lofgren, Charles A. 1975 Missouri v. Holland in Historical Perspective. Supreme Court Review 1975:77–122.

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Missouri v. Holland 252 U.S. 416 (1920)

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Missouri v. Holland 252 U.S. 416 (1920)