Is there an adjective that can express the concept of a law that supersedes other laws?

I would prefer a single adjective that has legal connotations, although a present participle will suffice. The phrases supreme law and overruling law approximate this concept, but supreme merely seems to indicate significance, and overruling implies direct contradiction, rather than "displacement in favor of another" as supersedure indicates (the laws do not run completely contrary to one another, but one is more appropriate and takes precedent). Also, the phrases the law which has primacy over other laws and the law which supersedes other laws are too wordy and awkward for my intended usage in a paper about a certain contentious Supreme Court decision.

Is there an adjectival form of "primacy" or "supersedure", or another adjective which accurately describes this legal usage? Here is the sort of context in which I intend to use such an adjective:

The ruling demonstrated disregard for the ________ constitution/law/legal right.

  • Generally the law that applies to a given situation is said to be the applicable law. Jun 4, 2014 at 17:06
  • Would it not work to simply say, “The ruling demonstrated disregard for the superseding constitution/law/legal right.”? (I suppose supersedentary is out of the question…) Jun 4, 2014 at 17:07
  • @JanusBahsJacquet In my opinion, superseding in this context implies that the law is being superseded, not doing the superseding.
    – Ted Broda
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:09
  • 2
    @TheodoreBroda Hmm. That sounds rather unintuitive. I would have thought that would be the superseded law … but maybe it’s a bit like substitute where you’re never really quite sure which is coming and which is going? Jun 4, 2014 at 18:11
  • Which Supreme Court case? Surely either the majority opinion or the dissenting opinion will contain exactly the word you are looking for. Jun 4, 2014 at 18:28

4 Answers 4


I would imagine the simplest way to do it would be simply superseding; but since you’re looking for more legalistic-sounding terms, there is:

The ruling demonstrated disregard for the supersessory constitution/law/legal right.

The OED defines supersessory (or its synonym, supersessive) as:

Having the quality or character of supersession; taking the place of something or someone displaced

– and gives a citation that appears to me (who am not very well-versed in US law, I should note!) to be quite parallel to what you’re looking for:

His decrees are always in the form of rescripts, which conclude with a general supercessory clause, contrariis quibuscunque non obstantibus. (The Monthly Review (London), Sept. 205, 1789)

  • Both words are great options; they fit my definition well, are used in legal contexts (according to your sources), and are cognates of supersede. Thanks!
    – Ted Broda
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:07

Consider the term preemption

a doctrine in conflicts of law: when a superior government (as of a state) has undertaken to regulate a subject its laws supersede those of an inferior government (as of a municipality).

According to the doctrine of preemption, federal law supersedes state law when federal law is in conflict with a state law on a subject or when there is congressional intent to regulate a subject to the exclusion of the states. Federal preemption is based on the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution and is closely related to the powers granted Congress in the commerce clause.

The adjectival form is preemptive.

  • This seems quite accurate, except that it deals specifically with ‘automatic’ supersedure based on a hierarchy, which is narrower than what is asked (if I’m understanding things right). The very different, but much more common, meaning of preemptive (as in preemptive action or go on a preemptive strike) could confuse matters, though. I would not immediately know whether a preemptive law was one that superseded another, or one that was passed in order to preemptive forestall something. Jun 4, 2014 at 17:57
  • Excellent! I particularly like the established legal usage, and the word fits the context unambiguously, the other meaning of pre-emptive notwithstanding.
    – Ted Broda
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:04

Perhaps 'overarching' ? Not strictly related to legal matters of course.

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    While the term you offer may be helpful, a definition and a source of that definition are generally needed to make an acceptable answer for this type of question.
    – bib
    Jun 4, 2014 at 17:41
  • Overarching is a pretty good choice, but unfortunately it indicates influence of other rulings/legislation on a broad scale, rather than taking precedence over a single other verdict/law. Anyway, thanks for sharing your suggestion.
    – Ted Broda
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:18

I'd go with 'ultimate' as in the 'ultimate authority.'

Alternatively, 'fundamental' may be more in line with your example sentence.

  • Thanks! Ultimate works well, implying that it is the final source of authority on a subject. However, ultimate does share some limitations with supreme, as people may assume it means optimal rather than having primacy.
    – Ted Broda
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:23

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