National Supremacy and the Constitution as Law of the Land

What Happens When State Laws Are At Odds With Federal Law

Constitutional Convention
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States. U.S. Government

National supremacy is a term used to describe the U.S. Constitution's authority over laws created by the states that may be at odds with the goals held by the nation's founders when they were creating the new government in 1787. Under the Constitution, federal law is "the supreme law of the land."

National supremacy is spelled out in the Constitution's Supremacy Clause, which states:

"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."

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in 1819 that "the States have no power, by taxation or otherwise, to retard, impede, burden, or in any manner control, the operations of the constitutional laws enacted by Congress to carry into execution the powers vested in the general government. This is, we think, the unavoidable consequence of that supremacy which the Constitution has declared."

The Supremacy Clause makes it clear that the Constitution and laws created by Congress take precedent over conflicting laws passed by the 50 state legislatures. "This principle is so familiar that we often take it for granted," wrote Caleb Nelson, a law professor at the University of Virginia, and Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

But it wasn't always taken for granted. The notion that federal law should be the "law of the land" was a controversial one or, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in , "the source of much virulent invective and petulant declamation against the proposed Constitution."

What the Supremacy Clause Does and Doesn't Do

The disparities between some state laws with federal law are what, in part, prompted the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. But the authority granted to the federal government in the Supremacy Clause does not mean Congress can necessarily impose its will on states.

National supremacy "deals with resolving a conflict between the federal and state governments once federal power has been validly exercised," according to the Heritage Foundation.

Controversy Over National Supremacy

James Madison, writing in 1788, described the Supremacy Clause as a necessary part of the Constitution. To leave it out of the document, he said, would have eventually led to chaos among the states and between the state and federal governments, or as he put it "a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members." 

Wrote Madison:

"As the constitutions of the States differ much from each other, it might happen that a treaty or national law, of great and equal importance to the States, would interfere with some and not with other constitutions, and would consequently be valid in some of the States, at the same time that it would have no effect in others. In fine, the world would have seen, for the first time, a system of government founded on an inversion of the fundamental principles of all government; it would have seen the authority of the whole society every where subordinate to the authority of the parts; it would have seen a monster, in which the head was under the direction of the members."

There have been disputes, however, over the Supreme Court's interpretation of those laws of the land. While the high court has held that states are bound by its decisions and must enforce them, critics have such judicial authority have tried to undermine its interpretations.

Social conservatives who are opposed to gay marriage, for example, have called on states to ignore a Supreme Court ruling striking down state bans on same-sex couples from tying the knot. Ben Carson, a Republican presidential hopeful in 2016, suggested those states could ignore a ruling from the judicial branch of the federal government. "If the legislative branch creates a law or changes a law, the executive branch has a responsibly to carry it out," Carson said. "It doesn’t say they have the responsibility to carry out a judicial law.

And that’s something we need to talk about.”

Carson's suggestion is not without precedent. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese, who served under Republican President Ronald Reagan, raised questions about whether the Supreme Court's interpretations carry the same weight as legislation and the constitutional law of the land. "However the court may interpret the provisions of the Constitution, it is still the Constitution which is the law, not the decisions of the Court," Meese said, quoting constitution historian Charles Warren. Meese agreed that a decision from the nation's highest court "binds the parties in the case and also the executive branch for whatever enforcement is necessary," but he added that "such a decision does not establish a 'supreme law of the land' that is binding on all persons and parts of government, henceforth and forevermore." 

When State Laws Are At Odds With Federal Law

There have been several high-profile cases in which states clash with the federal law of the land. Among the most recent disputes is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the landmark healthcare overhaul and signature legislative accomplishment of President Barack Obama. More than two dozen states have spent millions of dollars in taxpayer money challenging the law and trying to block the federal government from enforcing it. In one of their biggest victories over the federal law of the land, the states were given the authority by a 2012 Supreme Court decision to decide whether they should expand Medicaid. "The ruling left the ACA’s Medicaid expansion intact in the law, but the practical effect of the Court’s decision makes the Medicaid expansion optional for states," wrote the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Also, some states openly defied court rulings in the 1950s declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional and a "denial of equal protection of the laws." The Supreme Court's 1954 ruling invalidated laws in 17 states that required segregation. States also challenged the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.