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The Supremacy Clause: Definition & Example

The Supremacy Clause: Definition & Example
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  • 0:00 Background
  • 0:53 What Is The Supremacy Clause?
  • 3:23 Hypothetical Examples
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Nowaczyk
This lesson will cover the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that if a federal law and a state law come into conflict with one another, the federal law will take priority over the state law.

Background

When the United States was first forming its identity during the days after the Revolutionary War and Articles of Confederation, it was important to the founding fathers to create a strong federal government. The founding fathers also realized there would be times when there would be conflicts between the states and the federal government because it would be impractical to expect that everyone would always share the same views all of the time.

Imagine if we lived in a world where there was constant fighting between the states and federal government over who had the power to do something. It's likely that very little would get accomplished! To prevent some of these conflicts, the Constitution was written to have multiple parts to separate federal and state powers. Some of these parts include the 10th amendment, the elastic clause, and for this lesson, the supremacy clause.

What Is the Supremacy Clause?

The supremacy clause can be found in Article VI paragraph two of the Constitution and states that if a federal law and a state law come into conflict with one another, the federal law will take priority over the state law.

The U.S. Constitution says:

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, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding. (Article VI, paragraph 2)

That seems pretty straightforward. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that preemption, or the process that dictates when the supremacy clause is used, can not only be directly expressed but it can also be implied. In other words, most federal laws frequently include in their wording that they are to supersede, or take the place of, any conflicting state law that may exist now or in the future.

The Supreme Court has also said that there may be instances where the federal government doesn't explicitly state that it has supreme power but still may use the supremacy clause if a state law would interfere with the progress of federal programs or goals. In these situations, the Federal government would most likely need to convince the U.S. Supreme Court of how the state law interfered with the progress of its programs or goals.

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