Our federal government consists of three branches: the legislative, executive, and judicial. They all originate from the United States Constitution. Their powers come from Congress, the presidency, and the federal courts. Initially, any powers not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution belonged to the states, though many more powers would be added to each branch of government throughout history. These three branches all hold certain powers, and each branch “checks” the others. This means they restrict each others’ abilities to abuse their powers. This allows for oversight and debate at all times.
The Legislative Branch
The legislative branch is established by Article I of the Constitution and consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. This dual-legislature method was a compromise between smaller, less populated states like Delaware and New Jersey, and larger, more populated states like Virginia and New York. The agreement to create two houses of Congress was known as the Connecticut Compromise. The House of Representatives would be based on the population in each state, while the Senate would consist of two senators from each state, no matter the size or population.
The Executive Branch
The executive branch is established by Article II of the Constitution, which called for creating an executive branch headed by the president of the United States. The president is primarily responsible for enforcing laws passed by Congress and appoints the heads of many federal departments to help manage the government. The Senate must approve these heads that officially make up the president’s Cabinet. The president also appoints federal judges that must also be approved by the Senate, which serves as a check against the judicial branch. The most significant executive check on the legislature is the presidential veto, discussed above. Presidents can serve a maximum of two terms since the 22nd Amendment was passed, with each term being four years long.
The Judicial Branch
The judicial branch is established by Article III of the Constitution, which also guarantees the right to a fair trial and jury of one’s peers (fellow citizens). The Supreme Court is the most powerful institution in the judicial branch, which currently has nine justices appointed for life. The number of Supreme Court justices can be changed by Congress, though any change has not occurred since the 19th century. These justices serve for life and can choose to take up cases appealed through the federal court system.
The judicial branch also consists of district courts and appeals courts. Smaller courts also have judges appointed by the president and approved by the Senate and serve for life or retirement just like Supreme Court justices. Federal courts interpret the law and determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. Cases having to do with constitutional rights have often been appealed to the Supreme Court, including critical civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado.
The judicial branch’s power to interpret the constitutionality of federal law gives it a check over both the legislative and executive branches. It is meant to be a nonpartisan branch of government. Over time, this branch has also become very politicized, and the judicial branch is considered extremely important to have control over for both conservatives and liberals.