What is a Supremacy Clause?

Definition: The Supremacy Clause is an article of the U.S. Constitution that establishes the supremacy of the Constitution itself over any other law established within the country. In other words, in the scenario of a conflict, federal law derived from the Constitution must be applied over any other.

What Does Supremacy Clause Mean?

This clause is established in the U.S. Constitution in Article VI, paragraph 2. It states that the supreme law of the land is the Constitution along with any federal law or treaty derived from it. This particular article eliminates the possibility of conflict between federal and state laws since the federal laws will always prevail. This is particularly important since the state’s constitutions are also subject to this clause.

By giving the Constitution a supremacy over any other constitution (in the case of individual states) the United States guarantee unity of principles between each of its states. This was essential to the founding fathers after the Revolutionary War to ensure that the states will not rise against the established federal government by declaring themselves opposites of the Constitution. At least there will not be legal ground to do so.

Here’s an example of the application of the Supremacy Clause.

Example

In 1796, during the Revolutionary War the state of Virginia passed a statute to confiscate debt payments from Virginia citizens to British lenders, also known as the British debt case.

This case was taken to the Supreme Court by the lender’s defendants to establish that this statute contradicted the U.S. Constitution, since there was a treaty (the Treaty of Paris) signed by both the U.S. and Great Britain in 1783 that established the possibility to recover debts from any American citizen regardless of any law established by the state in which they currently live.

This meant that the Treaty of Paris, having been ratified by the U.S. Federal Government had a highest jurisdictional authority than any law passed by a given state.