Learn the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government and see a lesson plan for teachers.
The Founding Fathers, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, wanted to form a government that did not allow one person to have too much control. With this in mind, they wrote the Constitution to provide for a separation of powers, or three separate branches of government.
Each branch has its own responsibilities and at the same time, the three branches work together to make the country run smoothly and to assure that the rights of citizens are not ignored or disallowed. This is done through checks and balances. A branch may use its powers to check the powers of the other two in order to maintain a balance of power among the three branches of government.
Legislative - Makes Laws
The Senate has 100 elected senators total; 2 senators per state. Each senator serves a 6-year term.
House of Representatives
The House has 435 voting representatives; the number of representatives from each state is based on the state's population. Each representative serves a two-year term and may be re-elected.
Executive - Carries Out Laws
The executive branch is composed of the president, vice president, and Cabinet members.
The president is the head of state, head of the U.S. government, and the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military.
The vice president not only supports the president but also acts as the presiding officer of the Senate.
The Cabinet members are nominated by the president and must be approved by the Senate (with at least 51 votes). They serve as the president's advisors and heads of various departments and agencies.
Judicial - Evaluates Laws
The judicial branch of government is made up of the court system.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. The nine justices are nominated by the president and must be approved by the Senate (with at least 51 votes).
Other Federal Courts
There are lower Federal courts but they were not created by the Constitution. Congress established them around the country to handle federal business as the country grew, using power granted by the Constitution.
The Constitution of the United States divides the federal government into three branches to make sure no individual or group will have too much power:
- Legislative—Makes laws (Congress—House of Representatives and Senate)
- Executive—Carries out laws (president, vice president, Cabinet, most federal agencies)
- Judicial—Evaluates laws (Supreme Court and other courts)
Each branch of government can change acts of the other branches:
- The president can veto legislation created by Congress and nominates heads of federal agencies.
- Congress confirms or rejects the president's nominees and can remove the president from office in exceptional circumstances.
- The Justices of the Supreme Court, who can overturn unconstitutional laws, are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
This ability of each branch to respond to the actions of the other branches is called the system of checks and balances.
The legislative branch drafts proposed laws, confirms or rejects presidential nominations for heads of federal agencies, federal judges, and the Supreme Court, and has the authority to declare war. This branch includes Congress (the Senate and House of Representatives) and special agencies and offices 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.
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 or 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, 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.
Executive Branch Agencies, Commissions, and Committees
Much of the work in the executive branch is done by federal agencies, departments, committees, and other groups.
- Executive Office of the President – The Executive Office of the president communicates the president's message and deals with the federal budget, security, and other high priorities.
- Executive Departments – These are the main agencies of the federal government. The heads of these 15 agencies are also members of the president's cabinet.
- Executive Department Sub-Agencies – Smaller sub-agencies support specialized work within their parent executive department agencies.
- Independent Agencies – These agencies are not represented in the cabinet and are not part of the Executive Office of the president. They deal with government operations, the economy, and regulatory oversight.
- Boards, Commissions, and Committees – Congress or the president establish these smaller organizations to manage specific tasks and areas that don't fall under parent agencies.
- Quasi-Official Agencies – Although they're not officially part of the executive branch, these agencies are required by federal statute to release certain information about their programs and activities in the Federal Register, the daily journal of government activities.
The judicial branch interprets the meaning of laws, applies laws to individual cases, and decides if laws violate the Constitution. It's comprised of the Supreme Court and other federal courts.
- 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.
- Nine members make up the Supreme Court— a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. There must be a minimum or quorum of six Justices 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.
Federal Courts and Judicial Agencies – The Constitution gives Congress the authority to establish other federal courts to handle cases that involve federal laws including tax and bankruptcy, lawsuits involving U.S. and state governments or the Constitution, and more. Other federal judicial agencies and programs support the courts and research judicial policy.
Confirmation Process for Judges and Justices
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. 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.
Learn how cases reach the Supreme Court and how the Justices make their decisions. Use this lesson plan in class.
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.
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.
Justices study documents
The Justices examine the petition and supporting materials.
Four Justices must vote in favor for a case to be granted review.
What Happens Once a Case is Selected for Review?
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.
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.
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.
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: November 9, 2018