Missouri v. Holland

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Missouri v. Holland
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 2, 1920
Decided April 19, 1920
Full case name State of Missouri v. Holland, United States Game Warden
Citations 252 U.S. 416 (more)
40 S. Ct. 382; 64 L. Ed. 641; 1920 U.S. LEXIS 1520; 11 A.L.R. 984; 18 Ohio L. Rep. 61
Prior history Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the Western District of Missouri
Protection of a State's quasi-sovereign right to regulate the taking of game is a sufficient jurisdictional basis, apart from any pecuniary interest, for a bill by a State to enjoin enforcement of federal regulations over the subject alleged to be unconstitutional. Treaties made by the federal government are supreme over any state concerns about such treaties having abrogated any states' rights arising under the Tenth Amendment.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Edward D. White
Associate Justices
Joseph McKenna · Oliver W. Holmes Jr.
William R. Day · Willis Van Devanter
Mahlon Pitney · James C. McReynolds
Louis Brandeis · John H. Clarke
Case opinions
Majority Holmes, joined by White, McKenna, Day, McReynolds, Brandeis, Clarke
Dissent Van Devanter, Pitney
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. X

In Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920),[1] the United States Supreme Court held that protection of a State's quasi-sovereign right to regulate the taking of game is a sufficient jurisdictional basis, apart from any pecuniary interest, for a State to enjoin enforcement of an unconstitutional federal regulation, but that the federal government's implementation of the treaty at issue was constitutional, overriding state concerns about enumerated powers or abrogation of states' rights arising under the Tenth Amendment. The case revolved around the constitutionality of implementing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It is also notable for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' reference to the idea of a living constitution.


Previously, Congress had passed laws regulating the hunting of migratory waterfowl on the basis that such birds naturally migrated across state and international borders freely, and hence the regulation of the harvest of such birds could not realistically be considered to be province solely of individual states or groups of states. However, several states objected to this theory and successfully sued to have the law declared unconstitutional, on the premise that the United States Constitution gave Congress no enumerated power to regulate migratory bird hunting, and hence the regulation of such hunting, if there was to be any, was the province of the states according to the Tenth Amendment.

Congress, disgruntled with this ruling, then empowered the State Department to negotiate with the United Kingdom, which at the time still largely handled the foreign relations of Canada, a treaty pertaining to this issue. The treaty was subsequently ratified and came into force, and required the Federal Government to enact laws regulating the capturing, killing, or selling of protected migratory birds, an obligation that it fulfilled in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.[2] The state of Missouri then sued on the basis that the federal government had no authority to negotiate a treaty on this topic.


In an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Supreme Court held that protection of a State's quasi-sovereign right to regulate the taking of game is a sufficient jurisdictional basis, apart from any pecuniary interest, for a bill by that State to enjoin enforcement of federal regulations over the subject alleged to be unconstitutional. However, the Supreme Court held that the law at issue was in fact constitutional, noting that the treaties clause of the Constitution (Article VI, clause 2), sometimes known as the "supremacy clause," makes treaties the "supreme law of the land," a finding that nullifies any state-level concerns with regard to the provisions of any treaty, and further implying that treaty provisions were not subject to questioning by the states under the process of judicial review. In the course of his judgment, Holmes made this remark on the nature of the constitution:

With regard to that we may add that when we are dealing with words that also are a constituent act, like the Constitution of the United States, we must realize that they have called into life a being the development of which could not have been foreseen completely by the most gifted of its begetters. It was enough for them to realize or to hope that they had created an organism; it has taken a century and has cost their successors much sweat and blood to prove that they created a nation. The case before us must be considered in the light of our whole experience and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago. The treaty in question does not contravene any prohibitory words to be found in the Constitution. The only question is whether [252 U.S. 416, 434] it is forbidden by some invisible radiation from the general terms of the Tenth Amendment. We must consider what this country has become in deciding what that amendment has reserved.[3]


Many persons saw[4] and still see[5] this ruling to imply that Congress and the President can essentially amend the Constitution by means of treaties with other countries. These concerns came to a head in the 1950s with the Bricker Amendment, a series of proposed amendments which would have placed restrictions on the scope and ratification of treaties and executive agreements entered into by the United States. More recently, a similar provision has been proposed as the fourth article of the Bill of Federalism, a list of ten proposed amendments drafted by law professor Randy Barnett.

Thomas Healy has suggested that Missouri may not even be 'good law' - meaning that more recent decisions could be seen to overturn Missouri, and establish new limits on the Treaty power.[6]

See also[edit]

  • Louis Marshall, Esq. – New York lawyer who submitted an amicus curae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on Missouri v. Holland on behalf of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks
  • List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 252
  • Living Constitution
  • Bricker Amendment, one of several unsuccessful attempts during the 1950s to restrict the ability of the United States government to expand its power via treaties
  • Reid v. Covert, a 1957 case which stated that no treaty can come in direct violation of the United States Constitution, a partial limitation of the ability of the United States to use treaties
  • Medellin v. Texas, U.S. Supreme Court 2008. The Medellin case cast some doubt on how broadly Missouri v. Holland can be applied. Texas had ignored obligations of the United States under a convention, despite a relevant presidential order and a finding of the International Court of Justice. The individual defendant (who had been sentenced to death) was held by the courts, including the Supreme Court, not to have any personal rights to challenge his conviction because of this breach of the United States' international obligations
  • Bond v. United States (2014), raised similar question, but Supreme Court declined to reach the issue


  1. ^ Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920).
  2. ^ Bob Barr (2002). "Protecting National Sovereignty in an Era of International Meddling: An Increasingly Difficult Task". Harvard Journal on Legislation. Harvard Law School. 39 (2): 299. 
  3. ^ Holland, 252 U.S. at 433.
  4. ^ Sutherland, A.E. (1951), "Restricting the Treaty Power", Harvard Law Review, 65 (8): 1305, doi:10.2307/1336653, JSTOR 1336653 
  5. ^ Rosenkranz, N.Q. (2004), "Executing the Treaty Power" (PDF), Harvard Law Review, 118: 1867, archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-08-27, retrieved 2009-06-04 
  6. ^ Healy, T. (1998), "Is" Missouri v. Holland" Still Good Law? Federalism and the Treaty Power", Columbia Law Review, Columbia Law Review Association, Inc., 98 (7): 1726–1756, doi:10.2307/1123464, JSTOR 1123464 

External links[edit]