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The Supremacy Clause, Original Meaning and Modern Law

The Supremacy Clause, Original Meaning and Modern Law

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Under the U.S. Constitution, if federal interests conflict with state law, when must the latter give way? Although the Constitution’s text appears to resolve the question in Article VI’s supremacy clause, important recent scholarship argues that an approach anchored by the supremacy clause’s text cannot provide a practical account of modern law nor useful guidance for the future. More broadly, these critiques use the example of the supremacy clause to cast general doubt upon text-based originalism as a practical tool for resolving modern disputes. This article defends a textual approach to key modern issues of supremacy, including executive foreign affairs preemption, preemptive federal common law, and non-self-executing treaties. It finds that, while modern doctrine and modern conceptions of law differ somewhat from the outlook of the founding era, these differences are not insurmountable obstacles: a combination of text and stare decisis, as indicated by the Supreme Court’s approach to executive preemption in Medellin v. Texas, can supply workable solutions to modern supremacy debates. The article thus suggests that conventional academic concerns over the practicality of text-based originalism may be considerably overstated.
Under the U.S. Constitution, if federal interests conflict with state law, when must the latter give way? Although the Constitution’s text appears to resolve the question in Article VI’s supremacy clause, important recent scholarship argues that an approach anchored by the supremacy clause’s text cannot provide a practical account of modern law nor useful guidance for the future. More broadly, these critiques use the example of the supremacy clause to cast general doubt upon text-based originalism as a practical tool for resolving modern disputes. This article defends a textual approach to key modern issues of supremacy, including executive foreign affairs preemption, preemptive federal common law, and non-self-executing treaties. It finds that, while modern doctrine and modern conceptions of law differ somewhat from the outlook of the founding era, these differences are not insurmountable obstacles: a combination of text and stare decisis, as indicated by the Supreme Court’s approach to executive preemption in Medellin v. Texas, can supply workable solutions to modern supremacy debates. The article thus suggests that conventional academic concerns over the practicality of text-based originalism may be considerably overstated.

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Published by: Tenth Amendment Center on Dec 09, 2013
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The Supremacy Clause, Original Meaning, and Modern Law
M
ICHAEL
D.
 
AMSEY
 
Under the U.S. Constitution, if federal interests conflict with state law, when must the latter give way? Although the Constitution’s text appears to resolve the question in Article VI’s Supremacy Clause, important recent scholarship argues that an approach anchored by the Supremacy Clause’s text cannot  provide a practical account of modern law nor useful guidance for the future.  More broadly, these critiques use the example of the Supremacy Clause to cast  general doubt upon text-based originalism as a practical tool for resolving modern disputes. This article defends a textual approach to key modern issues of supremacy, including executive foreign affairs preemption, preemptive  federal common law, and non-self-executing treaties. It finds that, while modern doctrine and modern conceptions of law differ somewhat from the outlook of the founding era, these differences are not insurmountable obstacles: a combination of text and stare decisis, as indicated by the Supreme Court’s approach to executive preemption in
Medellin v. Texas
 , can supply workable solutions to modern supremacy debates. The article thus suggests that conventional academic concerns over the practicality of text-based originalism may be considerably overstated.
T
ABLE OF
C
ONTENTS
 I. I
 NTRODUCTION
 ................................................................................. 560
 
II. T
HE
T
EXT
-B
ASED
A
PPROACH TO
S
UPREMACY
 ................................. 564
 
A.
 Basic Outlines and Tensions with Modern Law
 ..................... 564
 
1.
 No Executive Preemption
 .................................................. 565
 
2.
 No Preemptive Federal Common Law
 .............................. 567
 
3.
Complete Preemption by Article VI Sources of Law
 ........ 570
 
B.
 Academic Responses
 ............................................................... 570
 
III. T
HE
S
UPREMACY
C
LAUSE
S
O
RIGINAL
M
EANING
 ............................ 572
 
A.
The Supremacy Clause Within the Constitution’s Text 
 .......... 572
 
B.
The Supremacy Clause’s Role in the Drafting and Ratifying  History
 .................................................................................... 575
 
C.
Structural and Historical Considerations
 ............................... 578
 
1.
 Executive Lawmaking 
 ....................................................... 579
 
2.
 Federal Common Law—General Considerations
 ............ 580
 
3.
 Federal Common Law—Specific Instances
 ...................... 584
 
 Hugh and Hazel Darling Foundation Professor of Law and Faculty Director of International and Comparative Law Programs, University of San Diego Law School. For helpful conversations and suggestions I thank Bradford Clark, Daniel Hulsebosch, David Golove, Richard Pildes, Michael Rappaport, and the participants at the New York University School of Law Constitutional Law Colloquium.
 
560
OHIO STATE LAW JOURNAL
[Vol. 74:4
a.
 Foreign Affairs
 ............................................................ 584
 
 b.
 Admiralty
 ..................................................................... 587
 
c.
 Interstate Disputes
 ...................................................... 589
 
d.
 Rights and Obligations of Federal Officials and  Institutions
 ................................................................... 592
 
e.
Conclusion
 .................................................................. 593
 
4.
 Non-self-executing Treaties
 .............................................. 594
 
IV. T
HE
S
UPREMACY
C
LAUSE AND
M
ODERN
L
AW
 ................................. 599
 
A.
 Executive and Administrative Preemption
 .............................. 599
 
B.
 Federal Common Law and the
Erie
 Revolution
 ...................... 601
 
C.
 Federal Common Law After
Erie ............................................ 604
 
1.
 Admiralty
 .......................................................................... 604
 
2.
 Interstate Disputes
 ............................................................ 605
 
3.
 Immunity of Federal Officials and Institutions
 ................. 606
 
4.
 Rights and Obligations of Federal Institutions
 ................. 606
 
5.
 Federal Common Law of Foreign Relations
 .................... 608
 
6.
 Further Extensions:
Boyle v. United Technologies ......... 610
 
D.
 Non-self-executing Treaties
 .................................................... 611
 
V. A
 
P
ATH FOR THE
F
UTURE
 .................................................................. 613
 
A. Medellin
 as a Model 
 ............................................................... 613
 
B.
 Re-thinking the Federal Common Law of Foreign Relations
 . 615
 
C.
 The Future of Non-self-execution
 ........................................... 617
 
VI. C
ONCLUSION
 ..................................................................................... 618 I.
 
I
 NTRODUCTION
 
Under the U.S. Constitution, if federal interests conflict with state interests, when must the latter give way? One view is that the answer is found largely within the text and original meaning of the second clause of Article VI, the Supremacy Clause.
1
 For others, this answer is too simplistic, assigning too much determinacy to the Clause’s text, too much weight to the Clause’s role in the original design, and too little attention to nuanced ways state–federal conflicts are resolved in modern adjudication. An approach anchored by the
1
 The leading proponent of the textual approach is Professor Bradford Clark.
See
 Bradford R. Clark,
 Federal Lawmaking and the Role of Structure in Constitutional  Interpretation
, 96 C
ALIF
.
 
L.
 
EV
. 699, 701 (2008) [hereinafter Clark,
 Federal Lawmaking 
]; Bradford R. Clark,
 Federal Common Law: A Structural Reinterpretation
, 144
 
U.
 
P
A
.
 
L.
 
EV
. 1245, 1261–64 (1996) [hereinafter Clark,
 Federal Common Law
]. For discussion in the context of the Constitution’s foreign affairs provisions, see M
ICHAEL
D.
 
AMSEY
,
 
T
HE
C
ONSTITUTION
S
T
EXT IN
F
OREIGN
A
FFAIRS
 289–90 (2007).
 
2013]
SUPREMACY CLAUSE
561
Supremacy Clause’s text, this view contends, cannot provide a practical account of modern law nor a useful path for the future.
2
 This debate affects at least three contentious issues of modern law. The first, a central issue in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in
 Medellin v. Texas
,
3
 is executive preemption—the idea that presidential policies, especially in foreign affairs, can displace state laws. The second is federal common law, again especially in foreign affairs, where lower courts have suggested a “federal common law of foreign relations” of uncertain but potentially broad scope that can displace state law in international matters.
4
 The third is the doctrine of non-self-executing treaties, as developed in recent decades in the lower courts
5
 and given apparent endorsement by the Supreme Court in a different part of the
 Medellin
decision.
6
 Each question implicates the Supremacy Clause—the first two because they suggest displacement of state law by federal interests not found in Article VI’s “supreme Law” and the third because it indicates that federal interests sometimes may not displace state law
even though
 the federal interests are incorporated into a treaty, part of Article VI’s “supreme Law.” Whether the Supremacy Clause’s text can provide a coherent framework to address these issues is a central challenge to a text-based approach. Broader theoretical concerns are at stake here. Originalism, especially originalism conceived as a focus upon the original meaning of the Constitution’s text, has been called “a force to be reckoned with in American constitutional theory.”
7
 But whatever its theoretical attractions, originalism faces a core practical challenge: is the modern legal world so far removed, doctrinally and theoretically, from the world of the Constitution’s framers that implementing text-based originalism at a practical level—in the sense of modern judges deciding modern cases—is impossible?
2
 Professor Henry Paul Monaghan’s
Supremacy Clause Textualism
, 110 C
OLUM
.
 
L.
 
EV
. 731 (2010), is an eloquent and insightful version of the skeptical view. Another important contribution is Peter L. Strauss,
The Perils of Theory
, 83 N
OTRE
D
AME
L.
 
EV
. 1567 (2008).
3
 552 U.S. 491 (2008).
4
 
See
 Jack L. Goldsmith,
 Federal Courts, Foreign Affairs, and Federalism
, 83 V
A
.
 
L.
 
EV
. 1617, 1625–39 (1997) (discussing and criticizing courts’ use of a federal common law of foreign relations); Jay Tidmarsh & Brian J. Murray,
 A Theory of Federal Common Law
, 100 N
W
.
 
U.
 
L.
 
EV
. 585, 594–614 (2006) (describing categories of federal common law).
5
 
See
 David Sloss,
 Non-self-executing Treaties: Exposing a Constitutional Fallacy
, 36 U.C.
 
D
AVIS
L.
 
EV
. 1, 3–6, 12–16 (2002) (describing lower courts’ non-self-execution doctrine).
6
 
 Medellin
, 552 U.S. at 506–23;
 see
 David Sloss,
The United States
,
 in
 T
HE
OLE OF
D
OMESTIC
C
OURTS IN
T
REATY
E
 NFORCEMENT
:
 
A
 
C
OMPARATIVE
S
TUDY
 509–14 (David Sloss ed., 2009) (discussing
 Medellin
).
7
 T
HE
C
HALLENGE OF
O
RIGINALISM
:
 
T
HEORIES OF
C
ONSTITUTIONAL
I
 NTERPRETATION
1 (Grant Huscroft & Bradley W. Miller eds.,
 
2011);
 see also
 
OBERT
W.
 
B
ENNETT
&
 
L
AWRENCE
B.
 
S
OLUM
,
 
C
ONSTITUTIONAL
O
RIGINALISM
:
 
A
 
D
EBATE
78–89 (2011) (noting the  prominence of originalism as a theory of interpretation); A
 NTONIN
S
CALIA
&
 
B
RYAN
A.
 
G
ARNER 
,
 
EADING
L
AW
:
 
T
HE
I
 NTERPRETATION OF
L
EGAL
T
EXTS
78–92 (2012) (defending text-based originalism as a core interpretive principle).

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