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What is the Supreme Law of the Land?

Photo of United States Capitol at night
The Constitution serves as the supreme law of the land in the United States of America.

To pass the US citizenship test, you will have to answer 10 of a possible 100 questions. The following question is from the USCIS test.

What is the supreme law of the land?


The Constitution.

The following is a full explanation of the USCIS question:

The United States Constitution as Supreme Law of the Land

The structure of the United States government was designed to protect the fundamental rights of American citizens and maintain the balance of power between federal and state law. The United States Constitution is the document that the founding fathers crafted to define and reference this freedom and balance. Such division of power between state and federal government is also known as federalism.

The Constitution is the law that all federal statutes and state law must adhere to. The Supremacy Clause is what gives it this power. All actions by the state and federal governments are only held valid if they are in keeping with the federal Constitution. 

Should it be suspected that an action taken by any state authority is not in keeping with constitutional law, the case may be brought before the Supreme Court. State constitutions have often been adjusted as a result of these case outcomes. 

What Supreme Law of the Land Means

In the United States, each of the fifty states are governed by their own state law. What is legal in one state may be illegal in the next. Every person within a state must abide by the laws of that state.

In terms of land area and population, many states are about the same size or larger than nations found across the globe. Absent the Constitution, North America could operate like other continents, being home to numerous nations.

Still, states cannot be considered nations unto themselves. They do not, for example, have the power to create treaties with other countries. Neither can states designate their own currency.

State law must operate within the confines of the contents of the Constitution. Citizens who feel that a state law infringes upon their constitutional rights air their grievances with the federal government. They do this by appealing to the Supreme Court.

Though state governments can draft their own laws, state law is not absolute. Instead, these laws can be overruled by the Supreme Court. As the highest court in the land, its sole purpose is to interpret and uphold the Constitution.

How the Constitution Became the Highest Law

It is the Constitution itself that declares the Constitution to be the highest law of the land. It achieves this through what is known as the Supremacy Clause. This clause is specific verbiage found within the document in the second paragraph of Article VI.

This penultimate article of the document establishes the federal government’s power. By clearly declaring that the United States Constitution is more important than state constitutions, it positions itself as the supreme law of the land. 

The Supremacy Clause addresses the potential conflict between the federal government and the states. It simply voids any state law that is not in line with the federal laws and treaties. Such laws are called unconstitutional. 

Examples of the Constitution’s Supremacy in Action

There are many examples of state law being overturned for being unconstitutional. The outcome of cases brought forward sets precedence by which all future similar or relevant cases are decided. The rulings of the justices prescribe the correct application of the law. 

McCulloch vs. Maryland

In 1819, a case against the state of Maryland was brought to the Supreme Court. The state had been charging additional taxes to any bank that the state itself didn’t charter. This tax was meant to hinder the operations of a bank that had been chartered by the federal government.

In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice John Marshall, it was ruled that Maryland was impeding upon the operation of constitutional law by taxing this bank. The outcome of the case established the immunity of federal property to state taxes. 

Martin vs. Hunter’s Lessee 

This case is perhaps one of the most powerful in demonstrating the power of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. In 1816, the Supreme Court judges overturned a ruling made by a court in Virginia, but the state’s Chief Justice prevented the state from abiding by the overturn.

He had claimed that the Supreme Court had no authority in state court matters. The response, however, was that its jurisdiction is wherever there are questions regarding federal law. This ruling served to establish supremacy in all inferior courts. 

Congress and the Constitution

As the law of the land, the Constitution does not just mediate between state and federal law. It also has the power to overrule the federal government’s actions. Perhaps no place can this be more clearly seen than when this powerful law overturns an act of Congress.

The power of the Constitution to overrule even the federal government was integral to the intent of its creation. The founding fathers recognized that such restraints were essential to the ongoing freedom of the land.

Though Congress has the power to create and change the law, that law is subject to review by the United States Supreme Court. From the time the Constitution was ratified in 1788 to 2014, over 170 acts of Congress were found unconstitutional. 

Independent but Influenced 

The acts of local governments and common law can only persist where constitutional interpretation allows. Even the actions of Congress are subject to judicial review. It is clear that the power of the Constitution is superior to them all.

This founding document may have been inspired by the freedoms granted through England’s Magna Carta, but its purpose is very different. Instead of preventing the nation’s leaders from being overthrown, it prevents the concentration of power by itself serving as the highest law of the land.

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