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What Is Federal Law?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Federal law is the whole of the laws passed by the federal government of a country. The federal government is the government that runs the entirety of the country, rather than governments at a smaller level such as state, province, or city. Federal law is typically established in one or more documents that clearly indicate the laws that govern the whole of the country, and may be created and upheld by one or more departments within the federal government. In the United States (US) for example, federal law is created by Congress, upheld by the president, and interpreted and enforced by the Supreme Court.

US law consists of the US constitution, US treaties, federal common law, and federal statutes and regulations. This makes up the body of law for the whole of the US and all citizens within the nation are considered equally protected and governed by these laws. Due to the separation of powers between different levels of government, these laws will usually not deal with any of the rights reserved for state governments.

The Constitution is part of federal law.
The Constitution is part of federal law.

While federal law may govern the overarching activities of all citizens of a country, as well as regulating various government agencies, it may not include all the laws of all regions within the country. In the US, states have certain powers and pass laws regarding how each state will be run, as well as state issues such as state parks, education, and transportation. Federal government laws, however, deal with delegating what rights states have, as well as dealing with any issues of injustice or offense between one or more state governments.

In the U.S., federal law is interpreted and enforced by the Supreme Court.
In the U.S., federal law is interpreted and enforced by the Supreme Court.

According to most readings of the US Constitution, federal law overrules state law if there is a conflict between the two. Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution gives the people of each state all the same rights as those enjoyed by all the people within the country. This is seen as ensuring that no state can pass a law that eliminates or hinders the rights guaranteed by these laws and is typically upheld as such by the Supreme Court.

In smaller countries, however, federal law may be a more specific matter that does govern the daily actions of its citizens. Countries with fewer regions may only have federal laws and city laws, instead of breaking the power structure down into other levels. Because of the large and sweeping nature of powers granted by these laws, care should be taken to ensure that abuses are not made and that tyrannical laws are not passed.

Discussion Comments


@Emiliski - You are correct, but sometimes the federal government will ignore their jurisdiction and let the local or state governments simply take over the issue.

There are many instances in which this can happen, I know one near me when a serial killer was caught and killed people across a few states, making it a federal crime, the federal government ignored their jurisdiction in the matter and let the states work out who wanted to try him.

The whole issue can be very complex and I was wondering if someone could simplify when the federal government can intervene in a matter and when the local and state governments can have the jurisdiction in the matter?


@tiatans62 - You are correct, but there are still powers that are reserved for the state governments, that federal law does not cover.

The ninth amendment sets aside all powers that are not specifically listed in the federal government. One of the notable things that are not covered under federal law is education, which is always a hot issue.

The point of federal law is to centralize everything in the complex nature of law and due to their being fifty different states having their own interpretation of their laws, it can make the whole issue not have uniformity. That is what federal law offers and that is why the federal government tries to centralize things.


@stl156 - Well, you are right on what you said, but the United States was also like any other country before the Civil War, in that they were a loose collection of states instead of one unified nation.

The United States was really the first country to have the loose organization of states under one federal government. Before this in other countries the local and county government had much power and the federal government basically left them alone.

Due to the way the United States was set up, a stand off between the state and federal powers was bound to happen and did.

Some believe that the Civil War was the final battle between state and federal powers, I disagree, but some really do believe this and if this is true, it shows how hot of an issue the difference between state and federal powers were.

I agree, this is a very interesting topic and it is something that people have written many books about, despite one thinking that federal law superiority is a no brainer.


I know that this may sound surprising to some people, but there was a time in which many states believed that federal law did not have jurisdiction over state law.

I know that when I was in school I heard of something called the Nullification Crisis, in which South Carolina refused to follow along with federal law and the ensuing court case established in law the superiority of the federal government over state laws.

Also, because of the Civil War the strong federal government that was created due to war powers caused the federal government to be much more centralized and not just be a loose collection of states.

I find this to be a very interesting topic and I was wondering if anyone else could shed any more light on the rise of the power of the federal government in the United States?

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    • The Constitution is part of federal law.
      By: klikk
      The Constitution is part of federal law.
    • In the U.S., federal law is interpreted and enforced by the Supreme Court.
      By: Geo Martinez
      In the U.S., federal law is interpreted and enforced by the Supreme Court.