What happens when states enact legislation that contradicts federal laws?
October 1, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
From Colorado to Missouri, Wyoming to Washington, states recently have passed laws that contradict or ignore federal laws.
In these so-called nullification efforts, the states have acted because they say the federal laws are unconstitutional or they disagree with the laws.
For example, Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for anyone over the age of 21 while the federal government still criminalizes the possession and distribution of the drug.
This led to a standoff between the states and the Department of Justice, until the department announced that it would not prosecute marijuana growers and distributors in Colorado and Washington. The Justice Department emphasized that the states must tightly regulate marijuana and that it has the right to arrest anyone breaking a federal law.
Wyoming’s House of Representatives passed legislation that would make it illegal for federal agents to enforce federal regulations regarding personal firearms in the state. Missouri’s legislature approved a similar measure, but the governor vetoed it.
And it doesn’t end there. An Associated Press analysis found that four of five states have a law that directly opposes a federal law. The laws include medical marijuana use, the federal health care law, identification standards for driver’s licenses, and gun measures.
So what does it mean when a state passes legislation that goes against federal laws?
The answer is tricky.
In the cases of Colorado and Washington, the federal government, operating through the Department of Justice, decided that it was not worth the legal fight and has stepped back to see what happens in regard to marijuana laws.
The Justice Department said it would allow the states to enact legalization efforts as long as strict regulations ensure that the drug does not get into the hands of minors, that the profit is not going to criminal enterprises, and that marijuana grown in the states does not cross into states where the drug is illegal.
Simply put, the federal government is allowing the marijuana shops to open, but it also retains the right to shut them down at any time.
When it comes to gun laws and health care, it’s a battle among the 10th Amendment, the commerce clause, and the supremacy clause.
The 10th Amendment states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
Supporters of states’ rights argue that the 10th Amendment grants the states more power than the federal government, because if it isn’t a power granted by the Constitution to the federal government, it is a power of the state.
But the U.S. Supreme Court routinely has rejected states’ claims that the federal government has overstepped its bounds and violated the 10th Amendment.
In Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court said that state agencies did not have to perform federally mandated background checks of individuals trying to purchase a handgun, but since the background checks were federal law, federal agencies were allowed to conduct background checks. Essentially the ruling says that states don’t have to participate in federal laws, but they can’t prevent federal agencies from enforcing those laws.
Article I, Section 8, states that Congress has the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian Tribes.” This is commonly called the commerce clause, and the Supreme Court routinely has determined that any economic activity that could potentially spill over state boundaries can be subject to federal regulation.
Furthermore, Article VI of the Constitution contains what is often referred to as the supremacy clause. It states that when a state law is in conflict with a federal law, the federal law takes priority.
Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in constitutional law, said that “the law is clear — the supremacy clause says specifically that the federal laws are supreme over contrary state laws, even if the state doesn't like those laws."
What do you think?
Should state laws or federal laws take priority? How should the federal government deal with states’ marijuana laws? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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