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Suppose a state Constitution explicitly states that residents of the state have a specific right (obviously this comes from the abortion debate, but I’m not necessarily focusing on that particular issue).

Then suppose a federal law was passed banning that action nationwide. Would this override the state Constitution? (Any prosecution would presumably have to be done at the federal level, but that doesn’t really matter because the people in the state have still lost the right.)

If it does override it, doesn’t that make rights “guaranteed” by a state Constitution really flimsy? They can’t be taken away within the state, but the feds can still wipe them out without any changes to the state or federal constitution.

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    If it does override it, doesn’t that make rights “guaranteed” by a state Constitution really flimsy? Consider the opposite: If a state's law (even on the constitutional level, as amending a state constitution could still be easier than changing federal law) would override the federal law, then the federal law would be equally flimsy.
    – Chieron
    Nov 22, 2023 at 8:39
  • @SegNerd If federal laws couldn't overwrite a state constitution, then what would happen if a new constitutional amendment is passed at the state level that disagrees with federal law? States would have the ability to bypass or ignore federal law at will.
    – Dakeyras
    Nov 22, 2023 at 11:21
  • To some degree, isn't this already the case with some drugs, like marijuana, which are legalized within the states, but not legal on a federal level? Admittedly, this largely results more in difficulty for dispensaries in getting bank accounts, and a handful of cases of police pulling over and seizing armored car contents under the pretense that the money is being used to fund federally illegal drugs.
    – SCD
    Nov 22, 2023 at 17:56
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    It should be noted that the only rights “guaranteed” by a state Constitution that are really flimsy are those which affect powers delegated to the federal government by the Constitution. All other rights are actually guaranteed by state Constitution because Congress can't make laws about them. Nowadays, abortion related rights may be in this group.
    – Pere
    Nov 22, 2023 at 21:57
  • The inability of states to override federal law is the main or entire reason they make trigger laws that depend on federal law.
    – NotThatGuy
    Nov 23, 2023 at 11:36

4 Answers 4

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Could a federal law override a state constitution?

Yes. If a federal law genuinely conflicts with a state constitution (i.e. it is not possible to follow both at the same time), then the federal law overrides the state constitution under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

If it does override it, doesn’t that make rights “guaranteed” by a state Constitution really flimsy?

Sort of. But usually, passing a law overriding a state constitution requires bipartisan support, so it isn't that easy to do in the federal legislative process.

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    “passing a law overriding a state constitution requires bipartisan support” — citation needed, taking into account current politics, not just historical practice.
    – Reid
    Nov 22, 2023 at 16:00
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    @Reid Even when one party has a federal trifecta the filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate have required bipartisan support for ordinary legislation for the last century and a half at least.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 22, 2023 at 16:36
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    @ohwilleke a century and a half?? Democrats had a trifecta and and supermajority in the Senate in 2009, only 14 years ago. They could have overridden any Republican filibuster if they chose, but in reality their own internal squabbles prevented them doing much. It's also worth noting that the filibuster itself could theoretically be removed or amended with a simple majority in the Senate, if they so choose, and votes on filibuster-related changes have not always followed party lines.
    – Phueal
    Nov 22, 2023 at 20:30
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    Generous interpretations of the Interstate Commerce Clause notwithstanding, I would suspect the Tenth Amendment would be a more robust barrier to overriding rights granted by a state constitution than the need for bipartisan support.
    – Sneftel
    Nov 23, 2023 at 11:31
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    It's probably worth mentioning that the US (federal) Congress cannot pass laws on anything and everything: some rights are reserved to the States. While there are ways around that (generous interpretations of the Interstate Commerce Clause, and in many cases "if you don't do what we tell you we won't give you any money"), they can't do just anything they want and/or it can later be rejected by the US Supreme Court.
    – jcaron
    Nov 23, 2023 at 15:22
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Yes.

For example, after Denver and Boulder expanded their civil-rights laws to protect LGBT people from discrimination, Colorado voters approved a constitutional amendment that protected all citizens of the state from enforcement of those laws, giving them a constitutional right to discriminate against people because they are gay.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck that amendment down, saying it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment:

We cannot say that Amendment 2 is directed to any identifiable legitimate purpose or discrete objective. It is a status-based enactment divorced from any factual context from which we could discern a relationship to legitimate state interests; it is a classification of persons undertaken for its own sake, something the Equal Protection Clause does not permit.

Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 635 (1996).

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    That's the federal constitution overriding state constitution, which is somewhat different - the question is about a federal law being passed to override the state constitution.
    – psmears
    Nov 22, 2023 at 10:35
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    There's a distinction but no difference. Whether it's a constitutional amendment or a congressional enactment or an agency regulation, the answer will always be that the Supremacy Clause requires any contrary state law to yield, regardless of whether it's a state statute or state constitutional amendment.
    – bdb484
    Nov 22, 2023 at 14:13
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    @JoeW The Constitution does.
    – barbecue
    Nov 22, 2023 at 17:54
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    @JoeW Article 6 of the US Constitution is very clear. If that's not good enough for you, then nothing will be.
    – barbecue
    Nov 22, 2023 at 19:25
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    This answer reaches the correct conclusion, but the provided example is not what the question is asking (it's about the federal Constitution, not a normal federal law) and the explanation of the Supremacy Clause really should be in the answer instead of in a comment.
    – reirab
    Nov 23, 2023 at 16:59
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Yes, federal laws take precedence over state constitutional provisions. That is, any provision of a state constitution that conflicts with federal law is unenforceable. This is explicitly stated in the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution:

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 6, paragraph 2 of the Constitution of the United States

If it does override it, doesn’t that make rights “guaranteed” by a state Constitution really flimsy? They can’t be taken away within the state, but the feds can still wipe them out without any changes to the state or federal constitution.

Sort of, and this is by design. If it were not the case, then federal laws would be a bit pointless, as states could just ignore them whenever they wanted by amending their own constitutions. States often have relatively low bars for amending their constitutions (frequently just a simply majority vote,) unlike the U.S. Constitution which requires very broad consensus to amend (2/3 of each house of Congress, then ratification by 3/4 of all states.) And states are also much more likely than the federal government to have one party more-or-less in full control of the government, often with significant and long-enduring supermajorities.

The U.S. Constitution is designed to give the federal government ultimate authority on a relatively narrow range of matters spelled out in the Constitution and leave everything else up to the states. Granted, that narrow range has been significantly expanded over the years, both via Constitutional amendments and via extremely broad readings of provisions like the Commerce Clause and Taxing and Spending Clause in court decisions.

Of course, passing a law in Congress is also not an insignificant hurdle (requiring at least a majority in each of the House and Senate and signature of the President, but often a 60% supermajority in the Senate on contentious issues,) so there would still have to be a decent nationwide consensus in order to pass a federal law overturning some provision of a state Constitution.

And, in order for a federal law to override a state constitutional provision, it would have to be a matter on which the federal government actually has an enumerated power in the U.S. Constitution. Otherwise the federal law would be unenforceable and the state constitutional provision would stand, in keeping with the design of the federal government's powers being limited to specifically enumerated ones and other matters left to the states.

The question In the US, what is the role of and relationship between federal law and state law? goes into more detail on which powers belong to the state vs. federal governments (or neither) and how differences between them are dealt with.

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Given different jurisdictions it is inevitable and desirable that there be a hierarchy of laws. Otherwise the villages would forbid taxes and allow whatever discrimination suited the local prejudices.

A constitution creates a hierarchy within that hierarchy, with different rules for when and how the laws within each hierarchy can be changed. But from the outside they are all within the same grouping. All federal laws trump all state laws. All state laws trump all county laws and regulations and all county laws trump city laws.

A city could create its own constitution, but that wouldn’t mean that they wouldn’t be subject to the rules of the county or state or federal laws.

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  • "all county laws trump city laws." - No, I don't think it works that way. Both cities and counties are creatures of the state; a city is not a creature of a county.
    – D M
    Nov 25, 2023 at 3:47

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