What the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause really means

In an op-ed published in The Daily Caller on February 23, Gregg Re repeats the all-too-common understanding that the overrated Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution makes the federal government supreme in virtually anything it wishes to do. That Gregg would hold such an opinion is no big surprise. It’s what he and most everyone else were taught in high school. Fortunately, I have learned since high school that this view of the Supremacy Clause is not only wrong; it is dangerous to people and to individual liberty.

Let’s begin here: It is perhaps the most basic premise of our American system of political philosophy that all political power is vested in and derived from individual people. We surrender some of our personal political power to government so that it can do things for us in common that we could not do as well individually. The most critical word here is “some.” We do not surrender all of our personal political power to government, for that would render us slaves.

The same model was used when the 13 original colonies (now “states”) surrendered some of their collected political power to create the confederated entity known as the United States of America — states united for a common purpose. In that event, the states surrendered a portion of their derived-from-individuals political power to their newly created servant, the federal government, for the same reason and with the same caution that individuals surrender power. It was a limited grant of power.

Wisely, this limited grant of power to the new servant was clearly documented in a writing called the Constitution, a set of written terms that cannot be changed except by the grantors, the states, and except by methods also specified in writing.

Those powers affirmatively granted to the newly created servant were “few and defined,” and specified in the Constitution almost entirely in its beginning, specifically Article I, Section 8, the “enumerated powers.” There was another provision included, necessary to correct a weakness in the prior Articles of Confederation, that clarifies that when a law enacted by Congress is properly implementing one of the powers ceded to the federal government among the “enumerated powers,” and if there should be a state law in conflict with the federal law, then the federal law will be superior — the “Supremacy Clause.”

So, the Supremacy Clause only applies to federal laws well-founded in the enumerated powers ceded to the federal government by its creators, the states. The questions then arise, just what does “well-founded” mean, and how broad are the enumerated powers?

Fortunately for our understanding, the states provided further and subsequent instruction about both of these topics in a later addition to the Constitution, what we know of as the Bill of Rights. In that further declaration, the states used language such as “Congress shall make no law,” “shall not be infringed,” “shall not be violated,” “shall not be required,” “shall not be construed,” and other language clearly intended to restrict application of the enumerated powers and what might be considered “well-founded,” and what might be allowed as supreme under the Supremacy Clause.

It is important to our understanding of the role of the Supremacy Clause that there is an ancient principle of law, pre-dating the Roman Empire, that if there is a conflict between two provisions of a co-equal body of law, the most recently enacted must be given deference as the most recent expression of the enacting authority. Absent this principle, no law could ever be amended once enacted. This logical and uncontested principle requires that the later enactment of the provisions of the Bill of Rights must prevail in any conflict with the underlying Constitution it amends, including trumping any application of the Supremacy Clause which proposes to implement one of the enumerated powers but which may be in conflict with any provision of the power-defining Bill of Rights.

High school civics also teaches, unfortunately and incorrectly, that the Supreme Court is given the authority to make final decisions about how much power the states have granted the federal government. This notion is improper because the Supreme Court is but one branch of the federal government created by the states, and subject to the will and constraints of its creators, the states, just as are the other branches. Some argue that the states signed onto a system that placed a branch of their servant superior to the states. That was not the original understanding, but one that was invented by Chief Justice Marshall to gain authority for the Supreme Court. And, as a matter of principle, that authority can be abused and have most unfortunate consequences.