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Branches of American Government and the Separation of Powers

Page history last edited by Matt Seastrand 1 year, 2 months ago Saved with comment



Focus Questions


  • What are the three branches of the United States government as outlined by the Constitution?


  • What are their functions and relationships?


  • Why were the the presidency and the independent judiciary unique features of the Constitution?



Topics on the Page


The Three Branches of U.S. Government




  • Women in National and State Legislatures







  • Famous Supreme Court Cases


Checks and Balances







 eBook Link


The Three Branches of U.S. Government


The United States federal government has three parts: the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. 


Politico Magazine article on the three branches of government today: We No Longer Have Three Branches of Government



Legislative Branch 


The Legislative Branch makes laws. They draft proposed laws, confirm or reject presidential nominations for heads of federal agencies/federal judges/ Supreme Court, and have authority to declare war.


The Legislative Branch is made up of Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) and special agencies/ offices that provide support services to Congress. As American citizens, we have the right to vote in Senators and Representatives through free, private ballots. Image result for house of representatives and senate


As stated above, Congress is divided into the Senate and House of Representatives.


The Senate has responsibilities specific to this branch.


These responsibilities include agreeing to treaties and confirming federal officials like Supreme Court Justices.


The Senate consists of 100 elected Senators, and each state is represented by two Senators. It is interesting to note that former Presidents John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy represented Massachusetts as Senators.


Senate terms are six years, and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve. According the Article 1, Section 3, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, no person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained the age of thirty years and been 9 years a citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected be an inhabitant of that state for which he shall be chosen.


On the other hand, there are 435 elected House of Representatives.


They are divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population. For the District of Columbia and other territories, there are additional non- voting delegates. Representatives serve two- year terms, and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve. Representatives' duties include introducing bills and resolutions, offering amendments, and serving on committees. The House of Representatives also has exclusive powers vested by the Constitution. These include the right to initiate impeachment proceedings and to originate revenue bills. 



Constitution Article on Legislative Branch: https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlei


How Laws are Made: https://www.usa.gov/how-laws-are-made#item-35837


Link here for the official website for Congress and federal legislative information


Link to contact Congress: https://www.congressionalinstitute.org/contact-congress/




Women have played prominent roles in national and state legislatures as well. 


Image result for women senators

 Women in the United States Senate


Link to Margaret Chase Smith and the Declaration of Conscience Speech



Women in State Legislatures for 2019



A First:  Women Take the Majority in Nevada Legislature and Colorado House



Women Make Up 24% of Members of National Legislatures Around the World



A timeline for Milestones for Women in American Politics



Page that gives links to evolution of Women in Congress






Executive Branch


The duties of the Executive Branch are to carry out and enforce laws. Sections of the Executive Branch include the President, Vice President, Cabinet, executive departments,Image result for all us presidents independent agencies, and other boards, commissions, and committees.


The President leads the country. They are the head of state, leader of the federal government, and the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces. The President serves four year terms, and can only be elected for two terms.


The Vice President is the second after the President. The VP supports the President, and if the President cannot serve their duties, the VP takes over. The VP can be elected and serve an unlimited number of four year terms even under different presidents.


The Cabinet serve as advisers to the President. They include the Vice President, heads of executive departments, and other high-ranking government officials. Cabinet members are nominated by the President and must be approved by a simple majority of the Senate—51 votes if all 100 Senators vote.


Fun Fact! President George Washington was the one to set the two- term precedent in 1796 when he passed on his third term. Washington made his thoughts quite clear, especially when it came to new phenomena of political parties. The line between Parties,” Washington said, had become “so clearly drawn” that politicians “regard neither truth nor decency; attacking every character, without respect to persons – Public or Private, – who happen to differ from themselves in Politics.



Click here for an overview of the Presidents of the United States from George Washington to Barack Obama


Article II of the Constitution establishes the executive branch of the US government


 Primary Sources


President documents: The American Presidency Project


U.S. Presidents including Donald Trump


60-Second Presidents audio clips 


U.S. Presidential Inaugurations: "I Do Solemnly Swear" Library of Congress


James Madison's Federalist 51, describing the necessity of a government that has checks and balances 



Judicial Branch


 Justices of the US Supreme Court, 2018


Image result for supreme court justices 2020


The Judicial Branch interprets laws, applies laws to different individual cases, and has say on violations to the Constitution. This branch is made up of the Supreme Court and other federal courts.


The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. There are nine members of the Supreme Court: a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. The minimum number of Justices needed to decide on a case is six. There are no fixed terms for Justices. They serve until their death, retirement, or removal in exceptional circumstances.



According to the Constitution, Congress has authority to establish federal courts to handle cases involving federal laws like taxes, bankruptcy, lawsuits involving U.S. and state governments, and more. 


There is a process in appointing the Supreme Court Justices and other federal judgeships.


First, the President nominates a person to fill a vacant judgeship.


Second, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the nominee and votes on whether to forward the nomination to the full Senate. If the nomination moves forward, the Senate can debate the nomination. Debate must end before the Senate can vote on whether to confirm the nominee. A Senator will request unanimous consent to end the debate, but any Senator can refuse. Without unanimous consent, the Senate must pass a cloture motion to end the debate. It takes a simple majority of votes—51 if all 100 Senators vote—to pass cloture and end debate about a federal judicial nominee. 


Once the debate ends, the Senate votes on confirmation. The nominee for Supreme Court or any other federal judgeship needs a simple majority of votes—51 if all 100 Senators vote—to be confirmed.



Some famous Supreme Court cases:


  • Marbury v. Madison, 1803 (4-0 decision)
    •  This case established the Supreme Court's power of judicial review. In March 1801, President Adams passed the Judiciary Act which created new courts, added judges, and gave the President more control over appointment of judges. The Act was an attempt by Adams to frustrate his successor Jefferson. William Marbury had been appointed Justice of Peace in the District of Columbia. However, his commission was not delivered. Marbury then petitioned the Supreme Court to compel the new Secretary of State, James Madison, to deliver the commission. The Court found what Madison did was illegal. The Court held that the provision of the Judiciary Act of 1789 enabling Marbury to bring his claim to the Supreme Court was itself unconstitutional, since it purported to extend the Court’s original jurisdiction beyond that which Article III, Section 2, established. Marshall expanded that a writ of mandamus was the proper way to seek a remedy, but concluded the Court could not issue it. Marshall reasoned that the Judiciary Act of 1789 conflicted with the Constitution. Congress did not have power to modify the Constitution through regular legislation because Supremacy Clause places the Constitution before the laws. 


  • Scott v. Sandford, 1857 (7-2 decision)
    • Dred Scott was a slave that filed suit in Missouri for his freedom, claiming that his presence in free territory made him a free man. When he lost, the case was brought to the federal court. The majority of the case asserted that a Black person could not be an American citizen and did not have the standing to sue in federal court. Judge Taney therefore dismissed the case on procedural grounds. Taney further held that the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was unconstitutional and foreclose Congress from freeing slaves within Federal territories. The opinion showed deference to the Missouri courts, which held that moving to a free state did not render Scott emancipated. Finally, Taney ruled that slaves were property under the Fifth Amendment, and that any law that would deprive a slave owner of that property was unconstitutional. 


  • Brown v. Board of Education, 1954 (9-0 decision)Image result for brown v board of education
    • The ruling of this was case was that racial segregation of children in schools was unconstitutional. This was one of many cornerstones of the Civil Rights Movement, and helped establish the precedent that "separate but equal" education were not equal at all.  
    • Click here to learn more about this case and for the primary source document attached to it. 


  • Roe v. Wade, 1973 (7-2 decision)
    • Jane Roe was a fictional name used in order to protect the plaintiff's identity. She filed against Henry Wade, who was the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas. Roe challenged a Texas law making abortion illegal except by a doctor’s orders to save a woman’s life. In her lawsuit, Roe alleged that the state laws were unconstitutionally vague and abridged her right of personal privacy, protected by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects against state action the right to privacy, and a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion falls within that right to privacy. A state law that broadly prohibits abortion without respect to the stage of pregnancy or other interests violates that right. Although the state has legitimate interests in protecting the health of pregnant women and the “potentiality of human life,” the relative weight of each of these interests varies over the course of pregnancy, and the law must account for this variability.


  • United States v. Nixon, 1974 (8-0 decision)
    •  A grand jury returned indictments against seven of President Richard Nixon's closest aides in the Watergate affair. The special prosecutor appointed by Nixon and the defendants sought audio tapes of conversations recorded by Nixon in the Oval Office. Nixon asserted that he was immune from the subpoena claim
    • Image result for watergate scandal ing "executiveprivilege," which is the right to withhold information from other government branches to preserve confidential communications within the executive branch or to secure the national interest. The Court held that neither the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the generalized need for confidentiality of high-level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified, presidential privilege. The Court granted that there was a limited executive privilege in areas of military or diplomatic affairs, but gave preference to "the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of justice." Therefore, the president must obey the subpoena. 


  • Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015 (5-4 decision)
    • Some same- sex couples sued their state agencies on Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. These couples challenged the constitutionality of their states' bans on same- sex marriage or refusal to recognize them. The plaintiffs argued that there were violations of the Equal Protection Clause, Due Process Claus of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Civil Rights Act. The Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the right to marry as one of the fundamental liberties it protects, and that analysis applies to same-sex couples in the same manner as it does to opposite-sex couples. Judicial precedent has held that the right to marry is a fundamental liberty because it is inherent to the concept of individual autonomy, it protects the most intimate association between two people, it safeguards children and families by according legal recognition to building a home and raising children, and it has historically been recognized as the keystone of social order. 


Lesson Plan on Judicial Branch Government that utilizes written and video sources, with with modification for students with disability


Here is an article about the first black man to be elected to the Supreme Court. 

Checks and Balances & Separation of Powers


The reason checks and balances was such an important part of the Constitution was because the American People were afraid that one part of the government would become more powerful than another and a Monarchy would be established.

Montesquieu, 1728

File:Charles Montesquieu.jpgThe idea of having power be separated into three independently acting branches of government originates from Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brede et de Montesquieu (1689-1755) more commonly know as just Montesquieu. He was a French historian and political philosopher of the Enlightenment. In his Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu outlines how political authority should be distributed to legislative, executive and judiciary powers. This, Montesquieu claims is the best way for a republic to promote liberty. 


Primary Source: Excerpts from Montesquieu's Spirit of the Laws


Information on Separation of Powers: http://resourcesforhistoryteachers.pbworks.com/w/page/125621699/Separation%20of%20Powers%20in%20American%20Government 


 Learning Plan on Separation of Powers from National Constitution Center

Ben's Guide to checks and balances https://bensguide.gpo.gov/j-check-balance


Crash Course YouTube video on checks and balances: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bf3CwYCxXw



 So what's unique?

- Developing from the Articles of Confederation, the US constitution's creation of an independent executive was unique development for the US government

- In addition, the creation of independent judiciary branch was just as unique, as the last judicial system was tied to Congress under the Articles of Confederation

- It is also important to consider how this document was not our modern one:

- The original constitution had the Three-Fifths Compromise. This compromise effectively counted slaves as three-fifths of a person in determining the number of representatives each state would be allotted in the House of Representatives.

- major amendments, such as the 13th, 14th and 15th, were not added until one hundred years later. This is important as the original form of the Constitution provided freedom for primarily white, rich men



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