Federal law is created at the national level, and applies to the entire nation (all 50 states and the District of Columbia), and U.S. territories. The U.S. Constitution forms the basis for federal law; it establishes government power and responsibility, as well as preservation of the basic rights of every citizen.
State law is the law of each separate U.S. state and is applicable in that specific state. The state law applies to residents and visitors of the state, and also to business entities, corporations, or any organizations based or operating in that state.
When a state law is in direct conflict with federal law, the federal law prevails. A state law can afford more rights to its residents than federal law, but is not meant to reduce or restrict the rights of a U.S. citizen.
|Federal Law||State Law|
|Introduction||Federal law is the body of law created by the federal government of a country.||In the United States, state law is the law of each separate U.S. state, as passed by the state legislature and adjudicated by state courts. It exists in parallel, and sometimes in conflict with, United States federal law.|
|Creation||Created by the U.S. Congress. Both houses of Congress must pass a bill and it must be signed by the President before it becomes law.||State law is enacted by the state legislature and put into effect when signed by the governor.|
|Constitutional power||US Constitution provides for a federal government superior to state governments in regard to enumerated powers.||No state law can abolish or reduce the rights afforded by the US Constitution|
|Presumption in Conflict||Federal law trumps any state law in explicit conflict.||State law subservient to federal law in case of explicit conflict.|
|Citizen Rights||If state law affords more rights to residents, the state law is presumed to prevail.||If state law affords more rights than the federal law, the state law is presumed to prevail.|
|Issues under jurisdiction||Rules that apply throughout US, like immigration, bankruptcy, patents, and Social Security||Criminal, domestic, welfare, and real estate matters|
Issues under the Jurisdiction of Federal and State Laws
Following are some of the issues that come under the federal law:
- Immigration law
- Bankruptcy law
- Social Security/SSI laws
- Civil rights law
- Patent and copyright laws
- Federal criminal laws (i.e. money counterfeiting)
The following issues are determined and legalized by the state:
- Criminal matters
- Divorce and family matters
- Welfare, public assistance or Medicaid matters
- Wills, inheritances and estates
- Real estate and other property
- Business contracts
- Personal injuries such as from a car accident or medical malpractice
- Workers compensation for injuries at work
The preemption doctrine derives from the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution which states: "Constitution and the laws of the United States [...] shall be the supreme law of the land [...] anything in the constitutions or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding." This means that any federal law can trump any conflicting state law.
No state law may violate citizens' rights that are enshrined in the U.S. constitution. If a state passes such a law, the judiciary is allowed to overturn it for being unconstitutional. However, if a state law affords a person more rights than federal law, the state law is legally presumed to prevail, albeit only within that state. At the same time, if a state imposes more responsibility on its residents than the federal law, the state law prevails. If the state and federal laws are in explicit conflict, the federal law prevails. These cases of conflict are explained with examples below.
This is a good video about the history of state rights and conflicts between federal and state laws.
- If a state law affords a person more rights than the federal law, the state law is legally presumed to prevail within that state. For instance, if the federal law does not recognize same-sex marriage, but a specific state allows it, the state law prevails since it is giving its residents more civil rights.
- If a state imposes more responsibility on its residents than the federal law, the state law prevails. For instance, if the federal law does not require passengers in the back seat to wear seat belts, but a specific state requires residents to do so, the state law prevails and all citizens will be required to strap themselves in the rear passenger seat when they're in that particular state as residents or visitors.
- If the state and federal laws are in explicit conflict, i.e. if a state law expressly permits something that the federal law expressly prohibits, the federal law prevails. For instance, if a particular state has legalized the possession of marijuana, but the federal law explicitly prohibits it, no state resident can possess marijuana despite it being legal in that state.
Examples of conflicts
Marijuana laws are another area where federal law conflicts with state laws in several states. Recreational marijuana use is legal in Washington and Colorado. Many other states have legalized medical marijuana. However, cannabis continues to be a controlled substance under federal law. So while local law enforcement is not likely to arrest or prosecute marijuana growers or those in possession of pot (in a quantity under the state's legal limit), these individuals still risk getting arrested by federal authorities. What's more, business that are legally allowed to sell pot in Washington and Colorado — and, indeed, have the state-issued license to do so — find that they are unable to open bank accounts or engage in the financial system (e.g., by accepting credit cards) because no bank is ready (or allowed under federal law) to do business with them. When Washington and Colorado legalized recreational use of marijuana, the Obama administration recognized the conflict with state law and agreed to let these states go ahead, with conditions and without giving up federal authority to step in at any time.
Marriage has traditionally been a state issue. The minimum age requirement to get married varies by state. Marriage licenses are also issued by local governments. Gay marriage is legal in many states. Gay rights advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage advocate heavily at the state level — pushing for state laws that push their respective agenda. Some state laws are overturned by state courts. For example, in California. However, activists on both sides of the debate are also pushing for changes at the federal level because a federal law — or a U.S. Supreme Court ruling — would trump state law. Two cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 on gay rights bolstered same-sex marriage rights:
- In California, voters had enacted a law to ban gay marriage. This law was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court, and was overturned. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to decide this case when the federal court's decision was appealed. However, the Supreme Court also declined to make a ruling on whether individuals had a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
- In another case, the Supreme Court recognized the legitimacy of state law and ruled that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits. i.e., if a gay couple is married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, they are to be treated as legally married in their dealings with the federal government. For example, they can file for taxes under the "Married filing jointly" status.
The US Congress creates and passes bills, which the President signs to law. Federal courts may review these laws and strike them down if they are determined to not agree with the US Constitution.
State law follows a similar process but at the state level. State legislatures create and pass bills and the governor signs them into law. State courts may review these laws and remove them if they think they do not agree with the state's constitution.
The federal court system has 94 district courts (trial courts which handle civil and criminal cases), 12 courts of appeal (which have more power than district courts) and the Supreme Court. District courts are the trial courts. The circuit courts are the appellate court, charged with reviewing the decisions of the trial courts. The Supreme Court is the ultimate ruling court in the United States judicial system, and the only court established by the Constitution. Decisions made by the Supreme Court are usually of national importance.
All of the other courts in the United States must follow the ruling of the Supreme Court. The Constitution grants the Supreme Court the power to judge whether federal, state, and local governments are acting within the law, and even decide if the president's action is unconstitutional.
The video below explains the U.S. court system in detail: