The White Court (1910–21)


In what decision involving a treaty and migratory birds was the supremacy of treaties over state powers established?

The White Court ruled 7–2 in Missouri v. Holland (1920) that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 was constitutional and did not invade the state of Missouri’s control over birds within its borders. The law arose out of a treaty between the United States and Great Britain over protecting certain migratory birds. The state of Missouri sued a federal game warden to prevent enforcement of the law in Missouri. The state contended that it had sovereign control over birds within its state and that the federal law invaded its sovereignty.

Writing for the Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes determined that the federal law was constitutional to protect a “national interest”—the migratory birds. “But for the treaty and the statute there soon might be no birds for any powers to deal with,” he wrote. “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 pointed out that the state did not possess or own the birds, who flew across state and national borders.


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