The supremacy clause is the section of the United States Constitution stating that the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land,” and no other laws will supersede it. The clause was a departure from the previous federal system in the United States, which was enacted under the Articles of the Confederation. That system included a weak federal government and was later found to be impractical, which led to the development of the Constitution and the inclusion of this clause.
Unlike the amendments, which were primarily added after the original passage of the constitution, the supremacy clause has been in it since the very beginning. It is found in Article VI, Section 2, in the location that spells out which powers the federal government has, and which powers the federal government may not have. Some may feel the clause is in conflict with the Tenth Amendment, which says that all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved by the states, but the court has typically favored the supremacy clause in rulings where the two may have been used in opposing arguments throughout most of the 20th century.
Like many facets of the law, this clause is interpreted by judges and, therefore, the power of the clause depends on the judge looking at the case. A judge who accepts a state position, in actuality, is not only looking after and interpreting state law, but also federal law. If the judge does not properly consider the supremacy clause, it would likely be an issue on which the case could be appealed.
One of the biggest questions naturally resulting from this part of the Constitution is the exact extent of the state’s obligation to enforce federal law. While the clause certainly would invalidate or bar the enforcement of any state law in conflict with federal statute, the state’s ability to enforce federal laws has never been completely addressed. This may lead to some confusion from time to time. Generally, states that see a federal issue in a legal situation will refer that case to the proper jurisdiction, which saves the state time and money.
While the supremacy clause has enjoyed a higher position of authority in the court’s interpretation in recent decades, it has not always been the case. In the past, the court has taken various interpretations based on the justices who have served and what the general mood of the country has been. After the Civil War, the clause did not play as great of a role in the public discourse and interpretation of the law. That changed again in the 1930s.