The Supreme Law of the Land
Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which at first glance appears as little more than an attempt to tie up loose ends surrounding the creation of the nation's new government, actually establishes a foundation of American law: the supremacy of the actions of the federal government over those of the states.
Reflecting the general belief among the framers that a strong national government was needed in order to maintain cohesiveness within the fledgling nation, the second section of Article VI provides that the Constitution, the laws of the United States and all treaties are "the supreme Law of the Land," This portion of the document, now commonly known as the "supremacy clause," asserts that any state constitution or state laws contrary to the U.S. Constitution or the treaties and laws of the United States cannot be enforced by state or federal courts.
State courts, in particular, must make their decisions based not merely on the state constitution and state laws, but in consideration of the superseding laws and treaties of the United States government.
This important provision has withstood the test of time and several court challenges. Among these tests was McCullough v. Maryland (1819), in which Chief Justice John Marshall broadly asserted that "the States have no power, by taxation or otherwise, to retard, impede, burden, or in any manner control, the operations of the constitutional laws enacted by Congress to carry into execution the powers vested in the general government. This is, we think, the unavoidable consequence of that supremacy which the Constitution has declared."
Just five years later, in the case of Gibbons v. Ogden, Marshall amplified this interpretation when he wrote: " . . , it has been contended, that if a law passed by a State, in the exercise of its acknowledged sovereignty, comes into conflict with a law passed by Congress in pursuance of the Constitution, they affect the subject, and each other, like equal opposing powers. But the framers of the Constitution foresaw this state of things, and provided for it, by declaring the supremacy not only of itself, but of the laws made in pursuance of it. The nullity of an act, inconsistent with the Constitution, is produced by the declaration, that the Constitution is the supreme law. The appropriate application of that part of the clause which confers the same supremacy on laws and treaties, is to such acts of the State legislatures as do not transcend their powers, but though enacted in the execution of acknowledged State powers, interfere with, or are contrary to the laws of Congress, made in pursuance of the Constitution, or some treaty made under the authority of the United States. In every such case, the act of Congress, or the treaty, is supreme; and the laws of the State, though enacted in the exercise of powers not controverted, must yield to it."
These decisions, and others, have resulted in an application of the supremacy clause which obliges the nation's courts to ascertain whether a challenged state law is compatible with the policy expressed in federal statutes.
Accordingly, the application of the supremacy clause today is becoming, to an ever increasing degree, a matter of statutory interpretation -- a determination of whether state regulations can be reconciled with the language and policy of federal enactments. The result has been the acceptance as a tenet of American constitutional law the assumption that whenever the federal government takes exclusively for itself any field of lawmaking, the state governments are effectively prohibited from legislating in that field.
Beyond the interest taken in the supremacy clause, Article VI also took important steps to address basic rules of fair play and responsibility by the government. The first clause of the article effectively accepts all debts contracted and engagements entered into by the United States under the old Articles of Confederation. The inclusion of this clause did much to give the U.S. credibility within the world community, as it pledged to honor all debts incurred under the Confederation.
Likewise, Article VI contains a third clause -- a legitimate precursor of the religious freedoms encompassed within the First Amendment -- prohibiting anyone from being denied access to an official position with the federal government due to that person's religious beliefs.
Rather than being a mere afterthought, Article VI plays a major role in defining the relationship between the government of the nation and those of the states. The superiority of the national government has played a crucial role in the shaping and development of a cohesive nation of states, each striving to meet and implement similar goals and policies.