Supremacy Clause: Wikis


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The Supremacy Clause is a clause in the United States Constitution, Article VI, Clause 2. The clause establishes the Constitution, Federal Statutes, and U.S. treaties as "the supreme law of the land." The text establishes these as the highest form of law in the American legal system, mandating that state judges uphold them, even if state laws or constitutions conflict.



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 Fourteenth Amendment

Striking similarities exist between the supremacy clause and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states:

"No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States."

On the one hand, both are parts of the US Constitution that define the federal government's rule over the States. One difference, however, is that whereas the supremacy clause deals with the relationship between the federal government and the states, the fourteenth amendment deals with the relationship among the federal government, states, and citizens, with emphasis being placed upon the citizens.

Supreme Court interpretation

One of the earliest examples of the Supreme Court ruling that a state law violated the constitution under the Supremacy Clause came in the landmark McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819), wherein the court ruled that the state of Maryland could not tax the Second Bank of the United States, establishing the principle that the states could not tax the federal government.

The Supremacy Clause has been interpreted to come in effect only when the federal government has acted in an area. In Edgar v. Mite Corporation, 457 U.S. 624 (1982), the Supreme Court ruled that "A state statute is void to the extent that it actually conflicts with a valid federal statute." In effect, this means that a state law will be found to violate the supremacy clause when either of two conditions exists:[1]

  1. Compliance with both federal and state law is impossible, or
  2. "...state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress..."

In a similar opinion, Stone v. City and County of San Francisco, 968 F.2d 850 (9th Cir. 1992), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held (on the issue of injunction and remediation) that "otherwise valid state laws or court orders cannot stand in the way of a federal court's remedial scheme if the action is essential to enforce the scheme." In this case, prisoners suing for tort damages appealed to federal remediation law, suggesting that in their case federal law applied (though it might not in every instance of remediation). The court agreed and granted compensation where federal law was applicable.

In 1922, the Court applied the Supremacy Clause to international treaties, holding in Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920), that the federal government's ability to make treaties is supreme over any state concerns that such treaties abrogate states' rights arising under the Tenth Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also held that only specific, "unmistakable" acts of Congress may be held to trigger the Supremacy Clause. The state of Montana had imposed a 30 percent tax on most sub-bituminous coal. Commonwealth Edison and other utilities argued, in part, that the Montana tax "frustrated" the broad goals of national energy policy. But in Commonwealth Edison Co. v. Montana, 453 U.S. 609 (1981), the Supreme Court disagreed. Any appeal to claims about "national policy," the Court said, were insufficient to overturn a state act under the Supremacy Clause unless "the nature of the regulated subject matter permits no other conclusion, or that the Congress has unmistakably so ordained."[2]

However, in California v. ARC America Corp., 490 U.S. 93 (1989), the Court held that if Congress expressedly intended to act in an area, this would trigger the Supremacy Clause and nullify State action. The Court further found in Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 363 (2000), that even when a state law is not in direct conflict with federal law, the state law can still be found unconstitutional under the Supremacy Clause if the "state law is an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of Congress's full purposes and objectives."[3] Congress need not expressly assert preemption either, for (the Court said) Congress may implicitly assume preemption under the Constitution.[4]


There has been some debate as to whether or not some of the basic principles of the United States Constitution, such as the country's system of government or Bill of Rights, could be affected by an ambitious treaty. In the 1950s, a constitutional amendment known as the Bricker Amendment was proposed in response to such fears; it would have mandated that all US treaties not conflict with the existing powers granted to the US government. Subsequent legal precedents such as Seery v. United States, 127 F. Supp. 601 (Court of Claims, 1955), Diggs v. Schultz, 470 F.2d 461 (1972), and Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1 (1957), ultimately established most of the limitations sought by the Bricker Amendment.[5]

See also


  1. ^ Dow Chemical Co. v. Exxon Corp., 139 F.3d 1470 (Fed Cir 1998).
  2. ^ Commonwealth Edison Co. v. Montana, 453 U.S. 609, 634, quoting Florida Lime & Avocado Growers, Inc. v. Paul, 373 U.S. 132, 142 (1963).
  3. ^ Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 363, 372-374.
  4. ^ Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council, 530 U.S. 363, 386-388.
  5. ^ Henkin, Louis. "U.S. Ratification of Human Rights Conventions: The Ghost of Senator Bricker." American Journal of International Law. 89:2 (April 1995); Van Dervort, Thomas R. International Law and Organization: An Introduction. Santa Barbara, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 1997. ISBN 0761901892; O'Brien, John. International Law. Florence, Ky.: Routledge Cavendish, 2001. ISBN 1859416306

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