The Supremacy Clause is an article in the United States Constitution that specifies that federal laws and treaties made under the authority of the Constitution are the supreme law of the land. Found in Article VI, Clause 2, the clause provides that states cannot interfere with federal law, and that federal law supersedes conflicting state laws. In addition, this supreme law is binding on state courts. To explore this concept, consider the following Supremacy Clause definition.
Definition of Supremacy Clause
- Article VI, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution which dictates that federal laws made under authority of the Constitution are the supreme law of the land.
1789 Constitution fully ratified and put into effect
What is the Supremacy Clause
The United States is a federalist government, which means that citizens of the nation are subject to the powers of different government units. A federalist system allows two or more governmental bodies to have control over the same area, in this instance, both the state and the federal governments. The Constitution decrees that, while the laws of each state are valid, the federal government is the highest power of the land. The framers of the Constitution believed this was vital to create a strong and stable federal government, and to ensure there is a balance of powers between the federal and state governments.
To this end, the Clause reads:
“This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”
The Supremacy Clause was intended to prevent, or to deal with, conflicts of law that would undoubtedly occur between the federal and state governments, especially where state and federal laws touch on the same subjects. The broad nature of the clause’s language made for some interesting debate, as unanswered questions, such as what constitutes a conflict, were debated in the Constitutional convention. In fact, such questions have been addressed by the Supreme Court throughout the years.
Furthering the Supreme Law Decree
To further strengthen the position of the Constitutionally-granted authority of the federal government, Clause 3 of Article VI requires federal agents, delegates, and judicial officers to swear an oath to support the Constitution as a qualification to hold office. In addition, although the predominant religion of the time was Christian, the third clause of Article VI specifically prohibits the use of any religious test, meaning that no question of religious beliefs could be used, to determine qualification for government office.
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
The Full Text of Article VI
Article VI of the Constitution contains more than the Supremacy Clause, as it concisely addresses two related issues, including the oath referred to above. The full text of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution reads:
This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States”
Federalist No. 44
At the time the Constitution was drafted, political activists James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay wrote a series of articles, which were published in the popular newspapers of the time. These 85 articles are now known as the Federalist Papers. Each new article was numbered, and on January 25, 1788, James Madison published Federalist No. 44, which addressed the concept behind the Supremacy Clause.
Madison discusses at length the purpose behind parts of the Constitution that limit the powers of the individual states, pointing out that it is necessary to creating a stable, functional government. Some of the issues discussed include the prohibition against state-sponsored privateering, the printing of individual state currencies or paper monies, and other issues which, if not reserved for a single governmental oversight, would serve only to weaken the strength of the nation.
Madison confirmed that state legislatures held all powers not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution, but he stressed that a federal government that answered to the various states would upend the principles of government. Madison concluded that, if supremacy of the federal law was not established, “… it would have seen the authority of the whole society everywhere subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members.”
Example of the Supremacy Clause in Action
In 1854, editor Sherman Booth, an abolitionist engaged in the cause of ending slavery, was arrested and charged with violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This came after he was caught helping to incite a mob in an attempt to recuse a fugitive slave named Joshua Glover from the custody of a U.S. Marshal in Wisconsin. Shortly after his arrest, Booth filed a writ of habeas corpus with the state court, which was granted, and Booth was ordered released from custody.
U.S. Marshal appealed the state court’s decision, as the arrest had been made according to federal law, not state. The appellate court, and then the state Supreme Court, ruled that the federal Fugitive Slave Act was unconstitutional, and affirmed the ruling of the state court, confirming that Booth’s release was just. In doing this, the state Supreme Court attempted to overrule federal law, as well as the judgment of the federal court.
The U.S. Marshal then took the matter to the United States Supreme Court, which unanimously decided that the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not have the authority to annul a conviction made in federal court. In the Court’s written opinion, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stressed that, when the Constitution was adopted, it granted to the federal government certain powers and final authority, as he wrote:
“It was felt by the statesmen who framed the Constitution and by the people who adopted it that it was necessary that many of the rights of sovereignty which the States then possessed should be ceded to the General Government, and that, in the sphere of action assigned to it, it should be supreme, and strong enough to execute its own laws by its own tribunals, without interruption from a State or from State authorities.”
In this example of the supremacy clause, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution gives federal courts the final authority in interpretation of the Constitution and federal law. Since the Constitution does grant federal courts this power, state courts cannot interfere with the judgments made.
Applying the Supremacy Clause to Colorado’s Legalization of Marijuana
The state of Colorado’s Amendment 64, which legalizes the recreational use and sale of marijuana in the state has come under fire by Colorado’s neighboring states. In December, 2014, Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a civil lawsuit against Colorado, seeking to have the state’s marijuana law invalidated, based on long-standing federal law and practice regarding drug sales and use.
The states asked that the U.S. Supreme Court take their case directly, as it is the only court that could properly hear a dispute between the states. The 2014 lawsuit relies on the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government preeminent authority to regulate interstate commerce, which includes the trafficking in drugs.
Law enforcement officials in Kansas are adding their concerns to those of Nebraska and Oklahoma, that Colorado’s legalization of a drug still illegal in their states has increased their burden in policing their jurisdictions.
The lawsuit also bases its argument on the fact that Colorado’s Amendment 64 is in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act, and that Marijuana is listed with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”) as a Schedule 1 drug, right alongside heroine, ecstasy, and LSD.
Many legal professionals see this civil lawsuit between the states as the wrong road to a necessary end, as it should not be left to the states to sue one another when the federal government fails to enforce its own laws. This type of situation is exactly what the Supremacy Clause was intended to prevent.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Abolitionist – An individual who supports the abolition, or eradication, of a practice or institution, such as slavery, or capital punishment.
- Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
- Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
- Clause – A section of a legal document that relates to a particular point or issue.
- Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
- Loyalist – An individual who remains loyal to the established government or ruler, especially during a revolt.
- Privateering – The act of attacking and capturing enemy vessels, by use of a privately owned ship and private crew, with full authority of a government.