Resurrecting Missouri v. Holland

13 Pages Posted: 18 Dec 2008 Last revised: 5 Nov 2013

See all articles by Peter J. Spiro

Peter J. Spiro

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Date Written: December 16, 2008


This essay sketches the constitutional dormancy of Missouri v. Holland and the potential for its activation. The essay first describes how the treatymakers declined the Treaty Power offered them by the Court. In the near century since the ruling, no treaty appears to have depended on the decision for authority. The treatymakers have worked from contrary constitutional premises, establishing a sort of parallel constitutional universe in which the ruling was never handed down. Through these years, Missouri v. Holland has failed accurately to represent prevailing constitutional norms on the question. In other words, arguably the decision is no longer good law if it ever was.

But Holland may yet live. The key moving part here is the transformed global context. Globalization disaggregates nation-states, facilitating the global interactivity of constituent subnational jurisdictions. This creates new spaces for the states as international actors, including as parties to international agreements. These new international capacities may lessen the need for Holland-like powers in the national government, as the states become more amenable to international discipline. To the extent that international law implicates areas of exclusive subnational authority, the architecture of global society now includes suitable channels of interaction. On the other hand, the transaction costs of managing treaty relationships with multiple subnational entities argues for the maintenance of intermediary power in national governments. The discipline of subnational authorities may remain insufficient to address global imperatives. Some global issues can't wait for the perfection of the legal personality of subnational actors.

In other words, the world may need Missouri v. Holland. If Holland is to be resurrected, it probably won't be out of indigenous American concern. More likely, other actors will press the use of Holland's powers on the United States, in the way of demands lodged with the national government to bring the states into line with international undertakings. Although the national government has finessed recent situations in which a broad interpretation of the Treaty Power might have been required, it has yet to be put to the test. But it is not hard to conjure up scenarios in which the balance would tip in favor of using a treaty to trump state authority.

Keywords: Missouri v. Holland, Treaty Power, Federalism, Bricker Amendment, Bond v. United States

Suggested Citation

Spiro, Peter J., Resurrecting Missouri v. Holland (December 16, 2008). Missouri Law Review, Vol. 73, No. 4, 2008, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2009-2, Available at SSRN:

Peter J. Spiro (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

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