Section 1.1.1: Federal Supremacy

Fundamental Cases on the Fourth Amendment by Adam J. McKee

One of the key pillars that hold up the United States’ legal system is the principle of federal supremacy. This principle arises from the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Its essence lies in the understanding that when a conflict arises between state and federal law, federal law prevails. To truly appreciate this principle, we need to dig a little deeper into the Constitution and the framework of our legal system.

The Supremacy Clause is found in Article VI of the Constitution, where it declares, “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof…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.” At first glance, this might seem a bit complicated. So, let’s break it down.

What Does the Supremacy Clause Mean?

The Supremacy Clause effectively establishes the U.S. Constitution, federal statutes, and U.S. treaties as “the supreme law of the land.” It means that state laws, even when they come from the highest authority in the state, cannot supersede or overrule federal law.

The word ‘supreme’ denotes the highest rank or power. When we apply this to the law, it means that federal laws, under the Constitution, hold the highest authority. They are ‘supreme’ over state laws. If there is any disagreement or conflict between federal and state law, federal law has the upper hand and must be followed.

How Does Federal Supremacy Play Out?

Imagine that a state legislature passes a law that seems to clash with the U.S. Constitution. In this scenario, the U.S. Supreme Court has the power to step in. The Court can declare that the state law is unconstitutional, meaning that it contradicts the Constitution. This authority of the Supreme Court is often referred to as the power of judicial review.

The power of judicial review allows the Supreme Court to examine laws and determine whether they comply with the Constitution. This power is not expressly stated in the Constitution but was established in a landmark case in 1803, Marbury v. Madison, which set a significant precedent for the functioning of the U.S. judicial system.

Why Does Federal Supremacy Matter?

Federal supremacy ensures a degree of consistency and unity across all states. It is the backbone that ensures every state law aligns with the federal Constitution, maintaining a unified and harmonious system of laws throughout the country. Without federal supremacy, each state could enact conflicting laws, leading to a fragmented and disjointed legal system.

Moreover, it protects the rights of individuals and upholds justice, ensuring that every citizen, no matter their location, is subject to the same federal laws. This principle is of utmost importance in preserving the ideals of the U.S. Constitution, ensuring equal justice, and maintaining the democratic values upon which our nation was built.

Understanding the Balance of Power

Though federal law is supreme, it’s essential to understand that this doesn’t mean state laws are unimportant. Our system is designed to maintain a balance of power. This balance is often referred to as federalism, where power is divided between the federal government and the states. Both levels have their roles to play in governing, and both are vital for the smooth functioning of our democracy.

It’s a delicate dance, but at the end of the day, federal supremacy ensures that we all play by the same fundamental rules. This balance, protected by the Supremacy Clause, secures a harmonious relationship between the state and federal laws, allowing us to function as a united nation under a shared set of constitutional principles.

To sum up, the concept of federal supremacy plays a pivotal role in the United States’ legal system. This principle, backed by the Supremacy Clause in the Constitution, allows for a consistent, unified system of laws throughout the nation, preserving our democratic values, ensuring equal justice, and fostering national unity.

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Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  06/29/2023

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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