Local, State & Federal Ordinances: Definitions and Differences

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  • 0:06 Federalism
  • 2:11 Supremacy Clause
  • 2:55 Federal Laws and Regulations
  • 5:23 State Laws
  • 6:30 Local Ordinances
  • 7:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

In the United States, people are subject to the powers of several governmental units. Citizens must comply with federal, state and local laws - all at the same time. This lesson explores the definitions and differences between federal, state and local laws.


The United States legislative system uses the doctrine of federalism. Federalism means that citizens and visitors are subject to several governmental powers. In the U.S., federal, state and local governments all make laws. Generally speaking, each system of government has different responsibilities, though each system is working at the same time.

Our federal legislature, known as the United States Congress, makes federal laws. The federal laws are uniform in that they apply to all citizens and visitors of the United States, no matter which city or state that person is in. Everyone in the U.S. must follow the federal laws at all times. This works differently than state laws. State governments make laws so that they can manage the citizens and visitors of that particular state. Citizens, residents and visitors must follow these laws. Visitors must follow the laws of a particular state, but only while visiting that state. Local governments, such as counties and cities, also make laws so that they can manage the citizens and visitors of those particular areas. Citizens, residents and visitors must follow these laws. Visitors must follow the laws of a particular city, but only while visiting that city.

For example, the Oklahoma legislature has the power to make laws to govern the citizens and residents of Oklahoma. The laws of Oklahoma also apply to visitors while they are in Oklahoma, but these laws don't apply to citizens and residents of Arkansas if those people are not visiting Oklahoma. Let's say I'm a resident of Tulsa, OK. I'm subject to the laws of Tulsa, of Oklahoma and of the United States - all at the same time. I'm required to pay taxes to all three governments.

Supremacy Clause

Keep in mind that Oklahoma can't enforce laws that conflict with the United States Constitution or any federal laws made in furtherance of the Constitution. The Constitution's supremacy clause tells us that federal laws take priority over state laws as long as the federal laws are made in pursuance of the Constitution. When the two conflict, the federal law will trump the state law. Most state constitutions also include a supremacy clause, so that state laws will take priority over city ordinances. A hierarchy is formed, with federal laws sitting at the top of the hierarchy and local laws sitting at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Federal Laws and Regulations

Federal laws are rules that are passed by the federal government and enforced by the United States governmental agencies. These laws include constitutional issues, federal statutes and federal regulations. Our United States Congress makes and passes federal laws. These federal laws are known as statutes. Statutes are laws that are enacted by a legislative body. Federal laws are somewhat limited, though they may be civil or criminal. The U.S. government can only regulate certain areas, as specified in Article I of the United States Constitution. Other issues are left to state or local regulation.

Federal civil laws regulate national and international issues and issues between the states. These laws govern things like immigration, the armed forces and our federal courts. Federal criminal laws include issues like counterfeiting, bank robbery, tax evasion and trafficking controlled substances across state lines. Federal courts have the exclusive right to manage federal laws. For example, let's say John files for bankruptcy. Even though John is a resident of Kansas, his bankruptcy case will be heard in a federal bankruptcy court because bankruptcy is a federal issue.

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