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Does the Supreme Court have the authority to overrule state constitutions?

Updated on September 10, 2015


The Supreme Court makes many decisions regarding sometimes controversial issues which in some cases may not make sense especially if there is no clear distinction as to the requirements in the Constitution. The same is also true regarding federal laws signed by the President. The Supreme Court has the responsibility and authority to rule on the constitutionality of laws and issues associated with the various amendments. The point to be made is that many laws are passed in state legislatures and unless the constitutionality of a state constitution is part of the decision they should not impact the operations of a state government entity.

Supreme Court decisions like the recent one involving the 14th amendment have no impact on state constitutions. The point of the decision made stated involved the rights of individuals to have equal protection of the laws. Equal protection is one thing but if it involves such issues as freedom of religion and practicing your religious beliefs are two separate distinctions. Individuals can have equal protection under the law but individuals should not be forced to violate their religious principles like in the case of the Kentucky clerk. In addition the citizens of the state of Kentucky amended their constitution to make it unconstitutional to recognize or perform same-sex marriages or civil unions. This amendment was approved by 75% of the voters.

Section 1 of the 14th amendment is provided below:

“ Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This part of the Constitution is at the center of this latest case but there are potentially many others where the Supreme Court has made decisions which are not directly engrained within the language of the Constitution. According to section 5 of the amendment it clearly states that Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. In this regard it is up to Congress to pass appropriate legislation to enforce the provisions of this amendment. It is not within the power or authority of the Supreme Court to made decisions which are in conflict with the content of state constitutions unless the decision involves a state constitution. In a situation involving state constitutions and their content the court can only rule on the constitutionality with respect to the content of the U.S. Constitution.

It is widely accepted that the Supreme Court is the top law authority of the country but it does not mean any decisions made automatically overrules a state constitution in every instance. The Supreme Court in recent years has made decisions which seem out of place with reality and the Constitution but they are the law as it relates to laws passed by Congress and the rules and regulations of the Executive Branch.

Another point to make is amendment 10 to the Constitution which states that the powers not specifically granted to the federal government in the Constitution are left to the jurisdictions of the states. The Constitution is clear in this respect but Congress and the Executive Branch seem to have lost their focus on what they can and cannot do given their authority and responsibilities.

Part of the responsibility of Congress associated with Supreme Court decisions is to make changes in the laws when Supreme Court decisions do not agree with the intent of Congress.

The Supreme Court is one of the three branches of government and as such they have responsibilities and authority as defined in the Constitution. Some decisions as with lower courts amount to legislating from the bench. This is not meant to be a slam on the Supreme Court and their process as they have made great decisions but they have also made bad or poor decisions which in some cases defy logic.

One last point which is important to make is that decisions made by the Supreme Court do not automatically void the content of state constitutions. Many decisions are being made and have been made are clearly under the jurisdiction of the states not the federal government. It is appropriate that this court make decisions about state decisions contained within cases before them. Other than that they have no jurisdiction to impact the laws passed by state legislatures.


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    • Traveller004 profile image

      Traveller004 

      2 years ago from Colorado

      bradmasterOCal

      You keep telling yourself that.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      bradmasterOCcal 

      2 years ago from Orange County California

      Traveller

      Sadly you can't and this is evidenced by your use of irrelevant rhetoric. I am on topic, and it appears a topic that you are not skilled in making cogent arguments.

      This is a factual rather than a personal criticism.

      It appears from your statements that you have lost focus on the topic. I didn't quote Voltaire, I discussed the Supreme Court.

    • Traveller004 profile image

      Traveller004 

      2 years ago from Colorado

      bradmasterOCcal

      "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

      Oft times attributed to Voltaire however texts passages do not confirm this attribution.

      Sir, you need to stay on topic. And I could rebut all your points but I will not. I find no need to prove myself here or anywhere.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      bradmasterOCcal 

      2 years ago from Orange County California

      Traveller

      I believe that you need to take your own advice and do due diligence.

      Your states are merely opinions, and most of them are not correct.

      All Men are not Created Equal and the 14th Amendment didn't give Black men, or women the right to vote. And voting is clearly in the foundation of our federal constitution, while there is no right to marriage. It is not discussed anywhere in the constitution. The licensing of marriage is a state domain, and not that of the federal government.

      There is no common denominator among the LGBT group, much less with heterosexual traditional marriage. While the Supreme Court, and not a unanimous or even close court, used the 14th Amendment they never gave the basis of why they should make heterosexual marriage, open to homosexuals. In fact, Bisexuals are not homosexuals by definition, and neither are transgender. The SC never indicated why gays are just not making preferences, instead of an irresistible non controllable preference for the same sex. Should we treat a mere preference as someones right to change existing tradition.

      If there was something more than mere preference, then the SC could have made it judicial notice. They didn't do that. Making a class out of the LGBT doesn't have any factual basis.

      And you want to make a monumental issue out of Kim Davis, a state official and a state licensing law more of a violation than when President Obama refused to follow Immigration Law.

      The factual situations and the issues that are brought before the court are made narrow, and bringing new factual information or issues can cause of reversal or nullification of a previous SC decision.

      While it is in effect, it becomes the law of the land, but when you try to apply it to Kim Davis will it still violate that decision. The facts are different and there is an assertion of religious belief. Religion is named in the first amendment, while marriage isn't named in the constitution.

      The SC can ignore that assertion of religion, but that would be the basis of a different SC decision. The 14th Amendment while still constitutional by definition is vague and ambiguous. If that was not true than ask why they needed the 15th amendment?

      The real constitutional issue should be why the federal government has an income tax law that treats married people different than single people, or divorced people. They treat the rich different than the middle class by allowing the Internal Tax Code to be virtually unusable by the middle class.

      And it appears that you have never heard about Common Law Marriage which only requires time, and not any license.

    • Traveller004 profile image

      Traveller004 

      2 years ago from Colorado

      In truth, what persons who disagree with the supreme court do not realize is that the Supreme court is constitutional law. Constitutional law that affects all 50 stats unilaterally. Folks this is not news, it was set up at the beginning of USA and has been affect for over 200 years. Sorry, you gotta do your due-diligence before spouting.

      Recognized that the Kentucky Clerk chose to refuse her duties as a public official not an ecclesiastic offical. She did indeed violate CONSTITUTIONAL LAW instead of a state Statue or State Constitution, which I might point out, cannot single out by name any group or persons and discriminate against them. Which is why Equal Marriage Rights were granted.

      Marriage is not and forever shall be a function of the law, not a chursh, and that is why a Ship's Captain, A Judge and or other persons who fulfill high level public offices are granted the right to marry two individuals. It is a function of law and is not valid till you have a LEGAL LICENSE, not a Priests approval.

      To think or say otherwise is discrimination under the law.

      It is correct that any American has the right to religious freedom.

      However, our own Bill Of Rights is very clear WE SHALL HAVE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE. Which means you are free to practice your religion on your time but not in a public official's position. This clerk, in effect, committed a constitutional crime. Some people will disagree with this but it harkens to draft dodging which gets you slap-bang in federal prison and or passing state secrets to foreign powers.

      When you choose to be an American, and it's not mandatory, thus the right to expatriate, you accept the responsibilities that come with the rights. The issue at heart here is, that this clerk realizes she is in violation of Constitutional law and as such should be imprisoned the same way any draft dodger would be.

      That might seem harsh but when you allow religion to gain a foothold in overruling an issue of law, not religion, the point of law is meaningless.

      Any person holding an public office swears to uphold the duties of that office. Or in other words "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 

      2 years ago from Chicago

      I think a better analogy is capital punishment. The US constitution does not allow cruel and unusual punishment. A state constitution cannot codify stoning people and expect that's it's OK just because they wrote it down on a piece of paper all agree they should be allowed to do it. Can't happen.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 

      2 years ago from Chicago

      She wasn't honoring the constitution of her state. She was honoring her own conscious. And honestly, I really don't think a state can take away a right provided by federal law because the state wishes it to be so. Public officials can't discriminate and more so than Muslim public officials think women should wear burkas. She was lucky she got off with two days. It's time the right wing Christians stop cramming their religion down everyone else's throats. If she can't uphold the laws of the US, that's fine it's her right to believe differently. But she needs to do her job or quit. Period. Maybe she could go get a job in a baker where she could specialize in turning down orders of the LGBT community.

    • Dennis AuBuchon profile imageAUTHOR

      Dennis AuBuchon 

      2 years ago

      The Supreme Court only gets involved with state laws or constitutions if the case before them involves the question of constitutionality. Decisions by the Supreme Court do not, in my opinion impact the laws or constitutions in within the states. Primarily the court handles actions of the federal government not state government. The issue with the KY clerk and the action taken against her was wrong as she was honoring the constitution of her state. She should not have been arrested.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 

      2 years ago from Chicago

      Isn't the purpose of the Supreme Court to determine the constitutionality (US not state) of laws both state and federal? I believe they are the final interpreters of law. State if it makes it that far. I don't understand why a whole state constitution could be overwritten. Certain provisions but not necessarily the whole thing. I don't think I really understand your question.

    • Dennis AuBuchon profile imageAUTHOR

      Dennis AuBuchon 

      2 years ago

      Chantelle Porter

      Federal law does supercede state law except as you have cited. Supreme Court decisions though are not laws as I have stated in my blog.

    • Dennis AuBuchon profile imageAUTHOR

      Dennis AuBuchon 

      2 years ago

      BradmasterOCcal

      Thanks for stopping by and providing your comment. I totally agree with your comment.

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 

      2 years ago from Chicago

      I believe Federal law supercedes state law unless state law is more generous.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      bradmasterOCcal 

      2 years ago from Orange County California

      I think that the real issue is can the US Government make the state conform to its idea on an issue. By using the misinterpretations of the Supreme Court over the last one hundred years, the federal government has increased their size and scope, rendering the 10th Amendment impotent against the Supremacy Clause.

      BTW, it was always interesting to me, that states could Selective Incorporate the Bill of Rights into their State Constitution.

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