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Federalism & the Supremacy Clause: Definition & Example

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  • 0:06 Federalism
  • 1:04 The United States Constitution
  • 2:35 The Supremacy Clause
  • 4:18 Battle for Power
  • 5:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

The United States is a federalist government, where the citizens are subject to the powers of several governmental units. Our United States Constitution tells us that the federal government is the highest, or supreme, governmental power. This lesson explores the concept of federalism and the supremacy clause.

Federalism

Federalism is a method that allows two or more governments to share control over the same geographic region. In a federalist government, the power is divided between the national government and other governmental units.

This is different from a unitary government, where one unit holds the power. It is also different from a confederation, which is an association of independent governmental units. The Articles of Confederation originally established the United States as a confederation, where each of the states operated separately and independently from one another.

Since the adoption of the United States Constitution, the American people have been under the control of several different governmental powers. For example, if I am a citizen of Dallas, Texas, I am subject to federal laws, the laws of the state of Texas, and the local ordinances of the city of Dallas.

The United States Constitution

The Constitution set up our federal government and replaced the Articles of Confederation. After almost a decade operating under the Articles of Confederation, the framers of our Constitution realized that the states had too much power.

The framers wished to create a strong federal government. The result was a balance of powers between the states and the federal government, with the federal government clearly in charge.

The Constitution expressly granted broad powers to the federal government, but not to the states. For instance, the Constitution includes the necessary and proper clause, which allows Congress to make any law Congress deems appropriate to fulfill its duties.

Instead of granting much power, the Constitution stressed what the states couldn't do. The addition of the Bill of Rights, including the Tenth Amendment, helped to correct some of this imbalance. The Tenth Amendment reserved to the states or the people all powers either not specifically delegated to the national government or specifically denied to the states.

For example, Article I, Section 8 grants Congress certain powers such as coining money, regulating interstate commerce, and declaring war. The following section prohibits the states from such things as coining money and declaring war.

The Supremacy Clause

The supremacy clause is the section of the Constitution stating that the Constitution and federal laws made in furtherance of the Constitution are the supreme law of the land. The framers, recognizing the weak federal government established by the Articles of Confederation, wished to guarantee that no laws interfered with the goals of the Constitution.

The supremacy clause is found in Article VI, Section 2, where the Constitution specifies which powers the federal government has, and which powers the federal government does not have. When a state law conflicts with a federal law, the supremacy clause operates to invalidate the state law in favor of the federal one as long as the federal law is found to be in pursuance of the Constitution.

The supremacy clause also means that states can't regulate, interfere with, or control federal issues. This principle comes from the famous 1819 Supreme Court case of McCulloch v. Maryland. Here, the Court held that Maryland could not constitutionally tax the operations of the Bank of the United States, since that was a federal power.

More recently, the 1990 Supreme Court case of North Dakota v. United States slightly narrows this rule. The North Dakota case says that state regulation is invalid only if it regulates the United States directly or discriminates against the Federal Government or those with whom it deals.

Battle for Power

It may seem as though the supremacy clause and Tenth Amendment work together to draw a clear line between state and federal powers, but sometimes a state and the federal government will battle for power in a certain area.

The supremacy clause tells us that federal law trumps state law, but we don't always know whether or not a state has a duty to enforce federal laws. The United States Supreme Court settles these types of disputes.

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