Is it possible for the federal government to effectively repeal practically any state law? If it were to try to do so what obstacles might it encounter?

For example, it can overturn state abortion bans. I'm not sure the limits of what state laws it could overturn are. Could it make education non-compulsory? Could it lower the age to vote in state elections?

What exactly are the practical limits on what state laws the federal government can overturn?

  • As stated elsewhere: I was extremely clear about my distinction by starting out by limiting my question to whether it can reduce limitations in addition to adding limitations on top of them. The question linked to does not address this question at all. Also, that question ("what is the role of and relationship between federal law and state law?") is so general it would necessarily include several different questions and you could refer a whole topic to it. That's like closing every politics question because someone asked a question called "Can you tell me everything about politics?"
    – redwood
    Mar 16, 2023 at 0:45
  • 2
    Rather than complain, you could link to the other question, and quote the relevant parts of the answer as context. So you would say, 'In [question] it states >..... But this doesn't explain ....' That would help clarify the distinction for me.
    – James K
    Mar 18, 2023 at 14:58
  • 1
    I voted to reopen as distinct enough. (TBH the other question was so broad that answers ended up being huge essays, so even if they contain the answer to this as well, it's hard to find it in there.) But this Q probably still needs some work e.g. "it can overturn state abortion bans." Is that really meant as a statement or as a question? Mar 18, 2023 at 15:33
  • @Fizz But wasn't that Q trying to be a canonical resource?
    – sfxedit
    Mar 18, 2023 at 17:33
  • @sfxedit Yes, meaning that it provides a basic intro to and overview of that question. You can't possibly say that any question on the topic of "how do the federal and state governments interact" is now banned.
    – redwood
    Mar 20, 2023 at 2:43

2 Answers 2


From: In the US, what is the role of and relationship between federal law and state law? with my added emphasis.

So, if state and federal law disagree on a matter where the federal government has power to make that law, the federal law wins.

The Federal government cannot repeal state law. It can effectively nullify it in matters where the federal government has power to make law. And those powers are listed in the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

  • That thread states "In the particular mentioned example of federal vs. state (vs. local) minimum wages, the most restrictive (highest) minimum wage in a given jurisdiction would apply." To clarify, could the federal government say the state minimum wage can be no higher than $7.25?
    – redwood
    Mar 20, 2023 at 2:52
  • I am not clear on whether the federal government can only add further restrictions or whether it can legislate freedoms. Can you make a law saying "everyone has a legal right to the abortion" (which is the default without the existence of any law)?
    – user84614
    Oct 16, 2023 at 11:40
  • This question is about the adding restrictions versus removing restrictions distinction. It is clear that the federal government can add restrictions
    – user84614
    Oct 16, 2023 at 11:48

The way it works in the US, and many other federations, is that officially, the federal government has certain enumerated powers. Some of them are very broad, some less so. All powers not enumerated as federal are state powers that the federal government cannot touch.

You give the following specific examples. I am not a lawyer and am not even from the US, although I have some interest in its legal system, so please do not treat me as an authority on any of this.

Abortion rights

You write that the federal government can overturn state abortion bans. You are probably thinking of the proposed Women's Health Protection Act. If you read that bill, you can see that its sponsors believe that this is a federal power because of:

the powers of Congress under the commerce clause of section 8 of article I of the Constitution of the United States, its powers under section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States to enforce the provisions of section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, and its powers under the necessary and proper clause of section 8 of article I of the Constitution of the United States.

At least the citation of the commerce clause certainly makes some sense: healthcare services are a form of commerce, and commerce "with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes" (and that has been very broadly interpreted because services available in one state can also affect interstate commerce) is a federal power.

Education non-compulsory

I do not think the federal government could do that in the US. Some people might argue that compulsory education is a form of "involuntary servitude" that is (or may be) prohibited under the Thirteenth Amendment (which also contains a federal power to enforce by appropriate legislation); but reading through this Wikipedia section, it seems unlikely that that would hold up in court.

Lower the age to vote in state elections

Certainly so if it is over 18 years; the 26th Amendment says that Congress has the power to enforce it by appropriate legislation. Otherwise I do not think that can be read into any enumerated federal power.

  • Interesting how en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immediato_v._Rye_Neck_School_District doesn't give any reasons why the court ruled the way that it did. I guess they just didn't feel like overturning community service?
    – redwood
    Mar 20, 2023 at 2:46
  • The example that would be most useful for me is: Could it lower the minimum wage for states? Given that it can already increase the minimum wage for states, does not conversely mean it can equally decrease the minimum wage for states, or is there a distinction between adding restrictions on top of already existing ones, and removing them?
    – user84614
    Oct 16, 2023 at 11:43

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