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Determining Sovereignty

Determining whether state or federal law takes precedence in a given situation was a central debate among the drafters of the U.S. Constitution, and it continues to be a critical legal issue. Some powers are reserved to the states, in other areas the Congress can overrule state law, and in some areas neither the states nor the Congress may freely make law. The Constitution determines which sovereign, if any, may make laws on a topic.

The Constitution is a general document, drafted over 200 years ago, so there is a practical problem of resolving disputes over the meaning of the various sections. Fortunately, the Constitution created the U.S. Supreme Court as a referee between the Congress and the states. Shortly after its creation, the Supreme Court reserved to itself the right to determine the meaning of the Constitution. It is through this power of interpretation that the Court can declare that a law is unconstitutional--that is, that it violates the protections that are part of the Constitution.


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