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The Supremacy Clause


The Supremacy Clause provides: “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.” Art. VI, cl. 2. This language translates into a fundamental principle of our constitutional system of government: State law must conform to the dictates of the Constitution, and yield to constitutionally valid federal law whenever a conflict between the two arises. To conclude otherwise would be to permit each individual state to control what the Constitution defines as the business of the nation as a whole.

The judicial foundation for the law of federal supremacy can be traced to two opinions by Chief Justice John Marshall, McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316 (1819), and Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1 (1824). While neither opinion breaks ground beyond that which should be evident from the text of the Supremacy Clause, both opinions affirm, with confident and enduring rhetoric, the principle of federal supremacy within the sphere of constitutionally granted federal powers. The essence of that principle is that no state may transgress the norms of the Constitution or interfere with the constitutional exercise of federal authority.

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