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Virginia v. Tennessee, 148 U.S. 503; 13 S. Ct. 728; 37 L. Ed. 537 (1893)

Virginia v. Tennessee, 148 U.S. 503; 13 S. Ct. 728; 37 L. Ed. 537 (1893)

Facts—Virginia brought this suit to establish the true boundary line between herself and Tennessee. In 1801, commissioners, appointed with the approval of both states, established a boundary, and subsequently in 1803 both legislatures approved the boundary. Since that date, both states have adhered to the boundary, which Congress recognized in districting for judicial, revenue, and federal election purposes. Virginia sought to have the agreement declared null and void as having been entered into without the consent of Congress. The Constitution provides that “no state shall, without the consent of Congress . . . enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power. ”

Question—Does the Constitution prohibit states without the consent of Congress from appointing commissioners to run and mark the boundary line between them?


ReasonsJ. Field (8–0). What the Constitution implied by “agreement or compact” was any compact or agreement that endangered the power of the federal government, such as a war alliance or increasing the political power in the states. The Court further noted that the clause in the Constitution did not state when Congress should approve of a compact or agreement. The approval by Congress of the compact entered into between the states upon their ratification of the action of their commissioners is fairly implied from its subsequent legislation and proceedings. The exercise of jurisdiction by Congress over the country as a part of Tennessee on one side, and as a part of Virginia on the other, for a long succession of years, without question or dispute from any quarter, is as conclusive proof of assent to it by that body as can usually be obtained from its most formal proceedings.

“Looking at the clause in which the terms ‘compact’ or ‘agreement’ appear, it is evident that the prohibition is directed to the formation of any combination tending to the increase of political power in the states, which may encroach upon or interfere with the just supremacy of the United States.”

Note—Article I, Section 10, Clause 1 prohibits a state from entering into treaties or to form an alliance or confederation. This limitation is absolute and unconstitutional. The prohibition in Clause 3 that a state cannot enter into an agreement or compact without the permission of Congress is less strict. Thus in New Hampshire v. Maine (426 U.S. 363,1976), locating a boundary between them did not require congressional consent nor according to United States Steel Corp.v. Multistate Tax Commissioners (434 U.S. 452, 1978) was consent necessary when twenty-one states set up an administrative unit to collect taxes. Disputes over compacts or agreements are subject to the Court’s original jurisdiction.

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