Branches of Government

Learn more about the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the U.S. government.

3 Branches of the U.S. Government

3 branches of the U.S. Government infographic.

3 Branches of U.S. Government infographic

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How the U.S. Government Is Organized

The Constitution of the United States divides the federal government into three branches to ensure a central government in which no individual or group gains too much control:

  • Legislative – Makes laws (Congress)
  • Executive – Carries out laws (President, Vice President, Cabinet)
  • Judicial – Evaluates laws (Supreme Court and other courts)

Each branch of government can change acts of the other branches as follows:

  • The President can veto laws passed by Congress.
  • Congress confirms or rejects the President's appointments and can remove the President from office in exceptional circumstances.
  • The Justices of the Supreme Court, who can overturn unconstitutional laws, are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.

The U.S. federal government seeks to act in the best interests of its citizens through this system of checks and balances.

Legislative Branch

The legislative Branch enacts legislation, confirms or rejects Presidential appointments, and has the authority to declare war.

This branch includes Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) and several agencies that provide support services to Congress. American citizens have the right to vote for Senators and Representatives through free, confidential ballots.

  • Senate – There are two elected Senators per state, totaling 100 Senators. A Senate term is six years and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve.
  • House of Representatives – There are 435 elected Representatives, which are divided among the 50 states in proportion to their total population. There are additional non-voting delegates who represent the District of Columbia and the territories. A Representative serves a two-year term, and there is no limit to the number of terms an individual can serve.

Executive Branch

The executive branch carries out and enforces laws. It includes the President, Vice President, the Cabinet, executive departments, independent agencies, and other boards, commissions, and committees.

American citizens have the right to vote for the President and Vice President through free, confidential ballots.

Key roles of the executive branch include:

  • President – The President leads the country. He/she is the head of state, leader of the federal government, and Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces. The President serves a four-year term and can be elected no more than two times.
  • Vice President – The Vice President supports the President. If the President is unable to serve, the Vice President becomes President. The Vice President can be elected and serve an unlimited number of four-year terms as Vice President, even under a different president.
  • The Cabinet – Cabinet members serve as advisors to the President. They include the Vice President and the heads of executive departments. Cabinet members are nominated by the President and must be approved by the Senate (with at least 51 votes).

Judicial Branch

The judicial branch interprets the meaning of laws, applies laws to individual cases, and decides if laws violate the Constitution.

The judicial branch is comprised of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. You can file a complaint against a federal judge for misconduct or a disability that prevents the judge from making a fair ruling. Learn how to file a complaint about a federal judge. The rules for filing complaints about state and local judges vary by state, contact your state's government to learn more about filing a complaint.

  • Supreme Court – The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. The Justices of the Supreme Court are nominated by the President and must be approved by the Senate.

    • The court is comprised of nine members — a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. Currently, there is one Associate Justice vacancy. A minimum or quorum of six justices is required to decide a case.
    • If there is an even number of Justices and a case results in a tie, the lower court's decision stands.
    • There is no fixed term for Justices. They serve until their death, retirement, or removal in exceptional circumstances.
  • Other federal courts – The Constitution grants Congress the authority to establish other federal courts.

Judge/Justice Confirmation Process

Appointments for Supreme Court justices and other federal judgeships follow the same basic process:

  • The President nominates a person to fill a vacant judgeship.

  • 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. For most federal judgeships, the cloture motion requires a simple majority—51 votes—to pass.

  • For Supreme Court nominees, cloture requires a three-fifths majority—60 votes—to pass.

  • If the cloture motion doesn’t pass, debate continues in what’s known as a filibuster. The filibuster can effectively stall the process of voting on confirmation indefinitely.

  • Once the debate ends and the Senate votes on confirmation, just 51 votes are needed to confirm the nominee for Supreme Court justice or any other federal judgeship.

Filibusters and the “Nuclear Option”

Prior to November 2013, all federal judgeship nominations required 60 votes to reach cloture and end the debate on a nominee.

In 2013, the Senate lowered the number of votes required from 60 to 51 for federal judgeships excluding the Supreme Court, using the  "nuclear option." This interpretation of Senate procedure gives Members the ability to change chamber rules with a simple majority vote.

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How the Supreme Court Works

This Kids.gov poster explains how cases reach the Supreme Court, how the Justices make their decisions, and how new Justices are appointed.

This Kids.gov poster explains how cases reach the Supreme Court, how the Justices make their decisions, and how new Justices are appointed.

View a larger version of the infographic.

How the Supreme Court Works

The Supreme Court is:

  • The highest court in the country
  • Located in Washington, DC
  • The head of the judicial branch of the federal government
  • Responsible for deciding whether laws violate the Constitution
  • In session from early October until late June or early July

How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court

Most cases reach the Court on appeal. An appeal is a request for a higher court to reverse the decision of a lower court. Most appeals come from federal courts. They can come from state courts if a case deals with federal law.

Rarely, the Court hears a new case, such as one between states.

  1. Dissatisfied parties petition the Court for review
    Parties may appeal their case to the Supreme Court, petitioning the Court to review the decision of the lower court.

  2. Justices study documents
    The Justices examine the petition and supporting materials.

  3. Justices vote
    Four Justices must vote in favor for a case to be granted review.

What Happens Once a Case is Selected for Review?

  1. Parties make arguments
    The Justices review the briefs (written arguments) and hear oral arguments. In oral arguments, each side usually has 30 minutes to present its case. The Justices typically ask many questions during this time.

  2. Justices write opinions
    The Justices vote on the case and write their opinions.

    The majority opinion shared by more than half of the Justices becomes the Court’s decision.

    Justices who disagree with the majority opinion write dissenting or minority opinions.

  3. The Court issues its decision
    Justices may change their vote after reading first drafts of the opinions. Once the opinions are completed and all of the Justices have cast a final vote, the Court “hands down” its decision.

    All cases are heard and decided before summer recess. It can take up to nine months to announce a decision.

Every year:

The Court receives 7,000-8,000 requests for review and grants 70-80 for oral argument. Other requests are granted and decided without argument.

About the Justices:

There are nine Justices:

  • A Chief Justice, who sits in the middle and is the head of the judicial branch.
  • Eight Associate Justices

When a new Justice is needed:

  • The President nominates a candidate, usually a federal judge.
  • The Senate votes to confirm the nominee.
  • The Court can continue deciding cases with less than nine Justices, but if there is a tie, the lower court’s decision stands.

Justices are appointed for life, though they may resign or retire.

  • They serve an average of 16 years.

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Last Updated: February 07, 2017

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