148 U.S. 503 (1893), argued 8–9 Mar. 1893, decided 3 Apr. 1893 by vote of 8 to 0; Field for the Court, Harlan not participating. Virginia invoked the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, asking it to set aside a survey that both Virginia and Tennessee had recognized in 1803 as correctly marking their boundary. Virginia argued that the joint recognition was unenforceable because it had not received the approval of Congress as required by the Compact Clause of Article I, section 10, which states that “no state shall, without the consent of Congress, … enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power.” The “compact” was said to arise from each state's ratification of the line in consideration of the ratification by the other.
Justice Stephen J. Field rejected Virginia's argument. In Field's pragmatic view, the clause did not require congressional approval of every compact. Instead, Congress need approve only those that threatened to increase the powers of the states at the expense of the national government. Furthermore, Field reasoned that the approval need not be explicit; approval could be found, as it was here, in successive Congressional acts recognizing the result of the pact.
Field's opinion had two obvious advantages: it fit well within the Court's continuing effort to preserve a place for the states in the federal scheme, and it rid Congress of the burden of considering every joint action taken by two or more states. The interpretation is still followed and continues to allow states considerable freedom to contract with each other to deal with regional problems.
Walter F. Pratt, Jr.