Missouri v. Holland : Conservation and controversy



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The issue of regulating the killing of migratory birds had been before the Congress since 1900. In 1913, Congress passed a bill to regulate state hunting seasons in order to protect migratory birds. In 1914, federal courts held the migratory bird act unconstitutional on the grounds that the states had complete control over the game within their borders and that the federal government did not have the authority to regulate game as this was a power reserved to the states. In 1916, Congress sought a new mode of regulation. The United States entered into a treaty with Great Britain to protect migratory birds and, as the treaty was not self-executing, Congress passed a law very similar to the 1913 act to implement the treaty. The controversy surrounding this new method of regulation raised the question: Could laws be enacted in conjunction with the treaty power that would be unconstitutional in its absence? The federal courts in 1919 and the United States Supreme Court in 1920 upheld both the treaty and the act. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the opinion of the Court in the 1920 case of Missouri v. Holland. Holmes based his decision on legal precedent and believed that if the treaty was valid then so was the act, it being a necessary and proper means to execute the treaty. He rejected the idea that the Tenth Amendment was any barrier to the treaty or the act. To some the decision implied that the treaty power could be used as a basis for expanded federal power, and they feared that the treaty power would be used to invade the police powers of the states. The decision also provoked controversy because of Holmes' reliance on the doctrine of inherent power. The decision, however, was not used as a basis for the enlargement of governmental powers in areas such as arms control and child labor. The decision did have some influence as a precedent in subsequent judicial decisions, but the matter of treaty supremacy over state law had long been adhered to as far back as the 1796 case of Ware v. Hylton. The Supreme Court relied upon Missouri v. Holland in several cases in the 1920's and 1930's which involved treaty power versus state law. In 1936, the inherent power doctrine enunciated by Holmes was reiterated and extended by Justice George Sutherland in United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation. In 1937 in United States v. Belmont, the Supreme Court gave an executive agreement the same authority as a treaty. New consternation arose over the treaty power since now the executive alone could negotiate agreements that could conceivably override state laws. The most heated controversy over Missouri v. Holland did not arise, however, until after World War II. In the late 1940's there was a new emphasis on treaties and international agreements. There were those who feared that they might supercede American domestic law, that the promise of human rights could mean the guarantee of civil rights. There was also a backlash by some academicians, members of the press, and government employees against what they believed had been too much executive power by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Much of this hostility was directed toward Missouri v. Holland, which was seen as the key factor in the excessive treaty power and executive power debate. Though Missouri v. Holland did not address the question of executive power, it was viewed through the Curtiss-Wright and Belmont decisions. The case was analyzed and debated in Congress and in scholarly and organizational journals. Senator John Bricker of Ohio sought to remedy the nettlesome decision by offering a constitutional amendment that would limit the scope of both the treaty power and the executive agreement. With the defeat of that amendment in 1954, the debate over Missouri v. Holland came to a close. Missouri v. Holland, based on sound historical and legal precedent, offered nothing new or unique and was not relied upon as a basis for the expansion of federal power. The 1920 case, however, proved useful as a sounding board for a great constitutional debate.



History, United States, Federal government, States' rights (American politics), Twentieth century