The term “sovereignty” is used to refer to a state’s ability to govern either itself or another state. It can also be used to describe a supreme influence or authority. For example, sovereignty is used to describe the power that a monarchy has over its people, or that a state has with regard to creating its own laws. To explore this concept, consider the following sovereignty definition.

Definition of Sovereignty


  1. The power that a state holds, which enables it to govern itself or another state.
  2. The power or authority of someone in a royal or otherwise authoritative position.


1300-1350       Middle English (soverainte)

Popular Sovereignty

Popular sovereignty is the idea that the government’s right to rule is granted by the people it governs. Popular sovereignty challenged the commonly held belief of those in charge that their ability to rule was given to them as a gift from God. This concept was known as divine intervention. In the mid-19th century, popular sovereignty was even used to determine whether new U.S. territories would be permitted to partake in slavery.

State and National Sovereignty

When considering state and national sovereignty, these ideas are best split up into two concepts: dual federalism and cooperative federalism.

Dual Federalism

Dual federalism, as a concept of state and national sovereignty, is an arrangement that is made between the states and the federal government that the states are free to govern themselves however they choose, free from government intervention. Examples of powers that are exclusive to the government under dual federalism include, but are not limited to:

  • Creating laws with regard to money (e.g. coining it, borrowing it, prosecuting counterfeiting, etc.)
  • The ability to declare war
  • Making rules with regard to the military
  • Admitting a new state
  • Creating and collecting on taxes

By contrast, the powers the states can enjoy without government interference under dual federalism include, but are not limited to, creating and upholding laws related to:

  • Education
  • Banking
  • Property
  • Public Health
  • Elections

Cooperative Federalism

Cooperative federalism, as a concept of state and national sovereignty, is the idea of state, local and federal governments all coming together to solve a problem, rather than creating their own separate policies. In cooperative federalism, the governments decide among themselves which branch of government is going to be responsible for handling a particular problem. That government will then create the appropriate policy in that area.

Cooperative federalism is also referred to as “new federalism.” This because cooperative federalism brings governments together as partners, rather than leaving them as separate entities who can do their own thing.

Supremacy Clause

The Supremacy Clause of the Constitution establishes the Constitution as the law of the land in the U.S. State courts are bound by it, and the federal laws that are created under it hold supreme rule, or sovereignty. In cases where state and federal law come into conflict, the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution dictates that federal law takes precedence. However, no matter what the state or federal governments may want to do, they can only do it if the Constitution gives them the permission to do so.

A Sovereignty Example Involving Hitmen

An example of sovereignty can be found in the matter of Heath v. Alabama, which was decided in 1985. Here, the Petitioner, Larry Heath, had hired two men to kill his pregnant wife in August 1981. At the time of the murder, Heath and his wife Rebecca were living in Alabama, a short distance away from the Georgia border. Heath led the men from Georgia to his house so they could commit the murder. Rebecca’s body was later found on the side of the road in Georgia. Investigations were then launched in both states.

In September 1981, authorities in Georgia arrested Heath for his wife’s murder. Upon his arrest, Heath confessed to the crime and waived his Miranda rights. He plead guilty in February 1982. He was then indicted in Alabama in early May 1982. Heath tried to have the case thrown out on the grounds that he was protected from double jeopardy under the Fifth Amendment, but the trial judge denied Heath’s request.

In Georgia, Heath had been sentenced to life in prison. However, in Alabama, his trial resulted in a death sentence. He appealed Alabama’s decision, but both the Alabama Court of Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the sentence. He thereafter appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the Court agreed to hear the case in October 1985.

The question the Supreme Court then had to answer was whether an individual could be tried by two states for the same crime. The Fifth Amendment’s protection against double jeopardy prevents the federal government or any state from trying a person more than once for the same crime. The Court had previously ruled that double jeopardy could not be invoked if the authority to prosecute a crime came from two separate sources, such as a federal sovereignty and a state sovereignty. However, this case before them was a new one: this was an example of sovereignty in two states coming into conflict with each other.

The Court ultimately found that each state was its own sovereign. Therefore, the prosecution of a crime in one state could not stop another state from prosecuting the same crime. The murder of Rebecca, which occurred in Alabama, and the disposal of her body, which occurred in Georgia, could be tried by both states at the same time. Therefore, the Court upheld the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court, saying:

“The sole remaining question upon which we granted certiorari is whether the dual sovereignty doctrine permits successive prosecutions under the laws of different States which otherwise would be held to ‘subject [the defendant] for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy.’ (citation omitted) Although we have not previously so held, we believe the answer to this query is inescapable.

The dual sovereignty doctrine, as originally articulated and consistently applied by this Court, compels the conclusion that successive prosecutions by two States for the same conduct are not barred by the Double Jeopardy Clause.  The dual sovereignty doctrine is founded on the common law conception of crime as an offense against the sovereignty of the government. When a defendant in a single act violates the ‘peace and dignity’ of two sovereigns by breaking the laws of each, he has committed two distinct ‘offences.'”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Double Jeopardy – The Fifth Amendment protection from being tried for the same crime twice, and from being compelled to testify against oneself.
  • Indict – To formally charge someone with a serious crime.
  • Miranda Rights – An explanation of a person’s rights under the law, typically read to the individual upon his arrest.