What is the Supremacy Clause?

Ken Black

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.

The United States Constitution is the "supreme law of the land."
The United States Constitution is the "supreme law of the land."

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.

The legal doctrine that states that laws in a higher level of government will win over laws in a lower level of government during a conflict is known as preemption.
The legal doctrine that states that laws in a higher level of government will win over laws in a lower level of government during a conflict is known as preemption.

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.

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Discussion Comments


Moldova - I wanted to say that this whole necessary and proper clause that allows Congress to pass legistlation that it deems fit is a little scary.

We see what happened with the Obama bill and I am glad the last federal court Judge saw this too.

This piece of legislation needs to be abolished because it destroys our healthcare system which is considered among the best in the world.

However, I did want to add that there was some occasions in which the supremacy clause example was effective and used properly.

In the McCulloch v Maryland supremacy clause case involved the unlawful taxing of a federal bank.

The state of Maryland wanted to tax this federal bank to even out the playing field because it felt that this federal bank had advantages that the state banks did not, so that is why the state tried to impose a tax on all banks that did not originate from the state.

However, Judge Marshall in his opinion wrote that this act that the state of Maryland engaged in violated the necessary and proper clause which states that congress has a right to pass laws deemed necessary and proper which was found in Article one section eight.

This gave Congress the ability to draft a federal bank in any state and the federal law regarding this bank overrode the state law taxing it.

It is this very clause that the Obama administration is hoping will uphold his socialized medicine bill. It was passed in such an underhanded way against the will of the American people that it is an abuse of power.

I believe about 70% of the American people are against this bill yet the Democrats forced it through.

I sure hope the Supreme Court rules that this piece of legislation is unconstitutional because our country would never be the same if it were allowed to remain the law of the land. This is a pure abuse of the necessary and proper clause and it has to stop.


FernValley- I agree that the supremacy clause can be misused on federal legislation. For example, the Obama healthcare bill has been deemed unconstitutional by two federal court judges on the grounds that it violates states rights under the commerce clause in the 10th amendment.

Because American citizens would be forced to purchase health care insurance or face fines and possible incarceration this is clearly unconstitutional which is not how the federal supremacy clause is supposed to be used.

Judge Vinson, the recent federal court judge to shoot down the legislation used Obama’s own analogy when discussing the unconstitutional nature of the bill.

Judge Vinson stated that during the 2008 campaign Obama had criticized Hilary Clinton’s healthcare bill because it did include a provision that forced Americans to buy healthcare insurance.

Obama went on to say that his plan did not include any type of mandate because that would be like making every American purchase a piece of real estate so that we could fix the homeless problem that we have.

Judge Vinson used Obama’s analogies in order to strike down the entire bill. The judge stated that if this were to stand then the administration could force us to buy or do anything it wanted which is not how our country was founded.


The supremacy clause is a great thing, however it is also why so many risks are present any time a piece of questionable legislation is brought to the federal legislature. Once something has been passed at the national level, it is very hard to dispute, and it can very rarely be altered at the state level.

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