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State of Missouri v. Holland

The Ownership Of Nature

The U.S. government's position included a list of 23 bird species threatened with extinction by the contemporary habits of sport hunters, some of whom boasted of killing as many as 10,000 birds in one night. Yet the case heard by the Court had become less about bird life than about states rights and the power of the U.S. government to make treaties. The state of Kansas filed a brief, supporting Missouri's position. Only six weeks after hearing arguments, however, on 19 April 1920, the Court ruled in favor of the federal government.

The majority opinion written by Justice Holmes reflected that the Court had focused on the Tenth Amendment in reaching a decision. Holmes noted that earlier congressional attempts to protect bird life by passing laws had been found unconstitutional. Congress had no right to displace state statutes, including those based on the assumption that migratory birds were the property of the individual sovereign states and their citizens. State law, however, could not supercede international agreements made by Congress in important matters of national interest. With Holmes citing a long-established tradition of treaties whose terms were observed by both the states and the nation as a whole, the Court affirmed Congress' right to enact legislation by implementing treaties.

Holmes stated that migratory birds were in fact "owned" by no one, much less by states whose territory the birds crossed while in transit. Without the protections offered by the treaty, Holmes noted, there might not be any birds for either the states or the U.S. government to regulate. "We see nothing in the Constitution that compels the Government to sit by while a food supply is cut off and the protectors of our forests and our crops are destroyed," Holmes wrote. If the states could have been relied upon to protect the wildlife, he added, the case would never have come to court.

Justices Van Devanter and Pitney dissented from the majority opinion, but through the Court's affirmation of Congress' power to enact legislation through treaties, the Migratory Bird Act survived. Proponents of states' rights continued to cite the State of Missouri v. Holland decision as an abuse of federal power, through which the will of state governments was unjustly bypassed. The successful defense of the Migratory Bird Act, however, remains a historical landmark among laws which protect wildlife in the national interest.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940State of Missouri v. Holland - Bird Protection And Treaty-making, The Ownership Of Nature, The Migratory Bird Treaty, Further Readings