The constitution of the United States bestows certain rights on the federal government and every state government. Both the federal and state governments can make laws. While the laws made by a state will be binding on the territory under its jurisdiction, federal laws are binding on all states, unless there is a state law that directly contradicts the federal law. It is in those contradicting laws where the supremacy clause comes in.
What is the Supremacy Clause?
The Supremacy Clause is laid out in the second paragraph of Article VI of the constitution. The clause essentially gives federal laws the upper hand over state laws when the two are in direct conflict or contradictory in nature. In other words, the federal laws will have jurisdictional authority over state laws in any and every case under judicial purview where the two laws are pitted against each other.
Unlike the many revisions, amendments and new laws that have been made over more than two centuries, the Supremacy Clause has been etched in the constitution since its first draft. The Supremacy Clause has been hotly debated by many. There are many proponents as well as critics of the law and in most cases subjectivity tends to dominate the viewpoints rather than objectivity. Over the years, the Supremacy Clause has been weirdly used by many judges. Like any other law, the Supremacy Clause is also under the subjective or objective interpretation of the presiding judge. Should the Supremacy Clause be exercised, the judge may avoid a conflict and may do away with the need of an appeal but that may not lead to the correct assessment. If a judge doesn’t exercise the clause then it leaves the case open for appeal at a higher court, in which case a federal judge is likely to enforce the clause.
Throughout history, Supremacy Clause has often been turned down or not exercised when the judges felt that the states need a more dominant control of its laws. During the civil war and many years later, the Supremacy Clause has been very rarely used. But since the early 1900s, especially after the 1930s, the Supremacy Clause has almost always been exercised and no judge at any level of appeal or court has tried to undermine it.
The Strengths & Pitfalls of the Supremacy Clause
The United States constitution is very lucid in many aspects. It allows every state to have its own laws. There are federal laws, some of which are binding on every state and some that are rather discretionary for the states. When any crime or legal issue crisscrosses more than two or three states, the federal laws come into effect. There is really no room for tussle. In some cases, jurisdictional issues do bear a hindrance but that has been changing over the years. Today, the civil law enforcement, the lawyers and the judges work with much more efficiency and coherence. However, the Supremacy Clause does raise a few questions, rather eyebrows when some crucial laws come into conflict.
There are some states that have legalized same sex marriage, some states have legalized marijuana, some states have lenient punishments for relatively heinous crimes and some states are opposing the minimum terms. Capital punishment and many laws are always on the table for debate among states and between most states and the centre or federal government.
The federal laws are always stronger than state laws. Being a federal law, it will always have more severe implications. But the fact that states have the liberty to make their own laws gets questioned when a state law is struck down to favor a federal law or its statute. If a state law is flawed, if it is not making appropriate sense in a given crime or if there is an associated federal or multistate context of the crime, then the Supremacy Clause make perfect sense.
The proponents of the Supremacy Clause argue that it is indeed necessary to empower the federal government to cut beyond the interstate relations or state laws that are more concise in their execution. Supremacy Clause tends to bring in a sense of balance. A country needs to have one set of laws. The states have the power to make laws but no law can overrule the federal law. In any scenario where the state law tries to supersede the federal law, it defeats the purpose of having one binding constitution and one set of laws. In that sense and from such a perspective, the Supremacy Clause is not only necessary but also important in striking the right balance. The Supreme Court can review the laws made by the Congress and strike them down if necessary. State laws are also subject to such reviews and the Supremacy Clause is needed to not allow complete authority of the state in contentious issues.