Missouri v. Holland

Following is the case brief for Missouri v. Holland, 242 U.S. 416 (1920)

Case Summary of Missouri v. Holland:

  • In 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to enforce an earlier treaty entered into by the U.S. and Great Britain.
  • The State of Missouri challenged the Act in Federal District Court as in conflict with its own State law.
  • The District Court dismissed Missouri’s action, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.
  • The Supreme Court held that the treaty (and the Act to enforce it) supersedes a conflicting State law, and does violate the Tenth Amendment.

Missouri v. Holland Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

In 1916, the United States and Great Britain entered into a treaty to protect migratory birds in the United States and Canada.  In 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to enforce the treaty.  The Act prohibited the killing, capturing, or selling of certain migratory birds except as permitted by federal regulation.

The State of Missouri brought suit against a U.S. game warden who was attempting to enforce the Act in Missouri.  Missouri maintained that the Act was an unconstitutional intrusion into Missouri’s own state laws in violation of the Tenth Amendment, and that it interfered with Missouri’s financial interest in the birds within its borders.

Procedural History:

Missouri filed an action in the District Court for the Western District of Missouri.  On a motion to dismiss, the District Court dismissed the case, finding that the Act was constitutional.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Issue and Holding:

Does the treaty and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act violate the rights reserved to the states under the Tenth Amendment?  No.


The decision of the District Court for the Western District of Missouri is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The authority of a treaty supersedes a state statute in matters where national action is required.


Referring to the Tenth Amendment, which reserves power to the states not delegated to the United States, does not end the inquiry in this case.  That is because the U.S. Constitution expressly delegates the power to make treaties to the United States, and that Acts of Congress are the supreme law of the land.

This case deals with migratory birds, which only have a transitory presence in any one particular state at a given time.  Therefore, a state statute cannot be the paramount law dealing with the national issue of migratory birds.  Accordingly, the treaty and the federal statute enforcing it should be upheld in the face of Missouri’s conflicting law.  The Tenth Amendment has not been violated here.


This case is an example of how the treaty power supersedes state law and does not violate the Tenth Amendment.  This case is also significant because Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the majority opinion, alluded to the concept of a “living constitution,” which is still a matter of debate today.  Originalists such as Justice Scalia have supported the opinion that the Constitution must be understood in terms of how the framers would have understood its terms.  Justice Holmes in Missouri v. Holland, however, states that the framers created a living organism, the evolution of which even the drafters could not have foreseen.

Student Resources: