The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution – Article VI, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution – states that the US Constitution, Federal Statutes, and US treaties are the “supreme law of the land.”
In other words, if there is a conflict between the state and federal law the federal is supreme.
In the event of a conflict, state judges are required to follow federal law regardless of what the state law or state constitution declares.
From the United States Senate:
The “supremacy clause” is the most important guarantor of national union. It assures that the Constitution and federal laws and treaties take precedence over state law and binds all judges to adhere to that principle in their courts.
Many people have a difficult time understanding this, since the Constitution divides power between the federal and state governments. However, it is perfectly clear in the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution that federal policies take precedence in the event of a conflict.
There are situations that can limit the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution:
- There must be a constitutional basis for the federal policy that is being questioned
- Despite the fact that the federal government is able to enact law, they are prohibited from using states as instruments of federal governance
For more than 200 years, the Supremacy Clause has been shaping the law of the United States. In 1788, Alexander Hamilton discussed this in great detail:
“But it is said that the laws of the Union are to be the supreme law of the land. But what inference can be drawn from this, or what would they amount to, if they were not to be supreme? It is evident they would amount to nothing. A LAW, by the very meaning of the term, includes supremacy. It is a rule which those to whom it is prescribed are bound to observe. This results from every political association. If individuals enter into a state of society, the laws of that society must be the supreme regulator of their conduct. If a number of political societies enter into a larger political society, the laws which the latter may enact, pursuant to the powers intrusted to it by its constitution, must necessarily be supreme over those societies, and the individuals of whom they are composed. It would otherwise be a mere treaty, dependent on the good faith of the parties, and not a government, which is only another word for POLITICAL POWER AND SUPREMACY. But it will not follow from this doctrine that acts of the large society which are not pursuant to its constitutional powers, but which are invasions of the residuary authorities of the smaller societies, will become the supreme law of the land. These will be merely acts of usurpation, and will deserve to be treated as such. Hence we perceive that the clause which declares the supremacy of the laws of the Union, like the one we have just before considered, only declares a truth, which flows immediately and necessarily from the institution of a federal government. It will not, I presume, have escaped observation, that it expressly confines this supremacy to laws made pursuant to the Constitution; which I mention merely as an instance of caution in the convention; since that limitation would have been to be understood, though it had not been expressed.”
For those who believe that the Supremacy Clause is “something new,” let’s travel back in time to 1796 to take a closer look at the case Ware v. Hylton.
This was the first time the Supremacy Clause was used to overrule a state law. During this time, Virginia passed a law allowing the state to confiscate debt payments by state residents to British creditors. However, the Supreme Court stepped in to note that the law was not consistent with the Treaty of Paris (meant to protect the rights of the aforementioned creditors). Thanks to the Supremacy Clause, the Supreme Court decided that the Treaty of Paris would supersede the state law.
While there have been many similar cases since, we may get to see a showdown in the near future concerning the legalization of marijuana use on the state level (Colorado and Washington).
What are your thoughts on the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution? I am more than happy to read and respond to your comments and opinions if you leave them below.