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History

The Three Branches

Is there an American out there who knows how our government – the United States Government – is set up? It’s not that difficult to find this out.

The United States Constitution explains how our government is structured. It is split into three branches as everyone should know by the time they are in the 4th or 5th grade. As our three branches of government are explained in the constitution, we have a legislative branch, an executive branch, and a judicial branch. The US Constitution explains this in Articles I-III. So if there is a copy of the US Constitution in your home you can look that up right now. It’s easy.

Article I – the Legislative Branch

Article I of the Constitution explains the structure of the Legislative branch, which is known as the lawmaking body of our government, or our assembly. This branch of our government is also called a 2-house legislature, or a bicameral legislature. The two houses are: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

When the new American government was being built, in 1787, we had a slight problem. Big states, like Virginia, which had large populations of people, wanted to control the federal government because of their size. On the other hand, small states, like Connecticut and Rhode Island, said that this wasn’t fair. Why should the big states control the direction of our new country without having a say from the small states?

This was the first showdown as the constitution was being created – the big states versus the small states. But unlike today, as our politicians can’t seem to agree or compromise on anything, our founding fathers knew and were wise enough to understand that compromise was essential to make the United States one country and not a bunch of little ones.

The Connecticut Compromise was the agreement between the big states and the small states, which created our 2-house – or bicameral – legislature. The big states received the House of Representatives. This benefits larger states by having representation based on population. A state like Virginia back then, or like California today, has huge populations of American citizens. By having those huge populations, those states have more representatives in the House of Representatives.

Since populations of states can change, so can the amount of representatives. That’s one reason why the census is taken every 10 years. Here’s an example: many years ago Pennsylvania had a larger population than Florida, and because of that, more representatives in the House. As some folks aged and became older they’ve moved to a state with a warmer climate – Florida. So, Pennsylvania has lost some of its population to Florida, which is why Florida now has more representatives than Pennsylvania in the House of Representatives.

Now for the small-state part of the Connecticut Compromise. Those states like Connecticut and Rhode Island, and newer states like Hawaii and Wyoming (Wyoming is a large state in area, but very small in population) have equal representation. Equal representation in our legislative branch exists in the Senate. Every state, no matter how large the population, has two senators.

So, what is the number of people in our bicameral – or 2-house – legislature?

  1. A) House of Representatives – 435 members from all of the 50 states. Remember, the number of members from each state varies based on the population of the state.
  2. B) Senate – 100 members. Two from each state.

Article II – The Executive Branch

Article II of the US Constitution explains how the executive branch of our government is structured. Who is the executive? The President, but the branch is not restricted to just the president. This branch consists of the vice president and cabinet, too. The immediate power of the executive branch is to enforce laws.

In today’s United States, we have been given the impression that the president is the most powerful of the three branches of our government. This is not true. There are critics of the executive branch who have called it the “Imperial Presidency’’ as if the executive branch has evolved in strength and power under Presidents Bush and Obama to rival the absolute power of a king. This is true, but it is not supposed to be, nor does the constitution give this type of power to the president.

All three branches are supposed to be completely equal in power. This is why we have a system of checks and balances, which will be covered in another article.

The second article of the constitution is not nearly as detailed as the first because the executive branch is much smaller than the legislative. This article of the constitution explains the requirements to be president, the powers of the president, and the offenses the president can be impeached for. In the early years of the United States, this article also told us how the president is elected, but more recent amendments to the constitution have changed and replaced the original way in which this happens.

Article III – The Judicial Branch

Finally, Article III deals with the Judicial Branch. Usually when people think of this branch of government, the Supreme Court comes to mind, but the federal court system is a huge web of courts that is tiered, or layered in succession. As the constitution states, “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the congress may from time to time ordain and establish.’’

If you were to go to federal court for whatever reason, you would start out in district court, which is the first, or lowest level. When you go further up the line, you would then reach the appellate courts. Both district and appellate courts are separated into 11 different districts nationwide. And the final layer of this system is the Supreme Court.

Article III explains the various jurisdictions of the federal court system. For instance, district courts have original jurisdiction, which is the ability to hear a case for the first time. An example of this, as the constitution states, would be in cases “between two or more states; — between citizens of different states.’’ On the other hand, appellate courts only have appellate jurisdiction, which is the ability to hear a case on appeal.

The Supreme Court has both original and appellate jurisdiction. The cases that it can hear first would be “cases affecting ambassadors, and other public ministers and consuls; — to Controversies to which the United States shall be a party.’’ As for appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court can eventually hear cases “between two or more states; — between citizens of different states.’’

The main power of the judicial branch is to interpret laws. The Supreme Court has a special power in its ability to interpret called judicial review. This gives the Supreme Court the power to ensure that a law does not stay in the books if it violates the US Constitution.  For example, if a law is passed by the legislative branch and signed by the president, and if that law violates the constitution in any way, then the Supreme Court has the authority to declare that law unconstitutional. By declaring it unconstitutional, the law is no longer a law.

That’s it, folks. These are the basics on our three branches of government. In the future we will spend some more time on them because there is a lot more to say about each one of them.

About pm

Teacher, writer, and freedom lover.

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