Three Branches of Government

Updated May 3, 2021 | Factmonster Staff

The System of Checks and Balances

In 1787 leaders of the states gathered to write the Constitution-a set of principles that told how the new nation would be governed.

The leaders of the states wanted a strong and fair federal government. But they also wanted to protect individual freedoms and prevent the U.S. government from abusing its power. They believed they could do this by having three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. This separation of powers is described in the first three articles, or sections, of the U.S. Constitution.

Legislative Branch

Capitol Building
The Capitol Building in Washington D.C. is where the legislative branch works.
Source: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The legislative branch is made up of the two houses of Congress—the Senate and the House of Representatives. The most important duty of the legislative branch is to make laws. Laws are written, discussed and voted on in Congress.

There are 100 senators in the Senate, two from each state. Senators are elected by their states and serve six-year terms. The Vice President of the U.S. is considered the head of the Senate, but does not vote in the Senate unless there is a tie. The Senate approves nominations made by the President to the Cabinet, the Supreme Court, federal courts and other posts. The Senate must ratify all treaties by a two-thirds vote, and the can also vote to impeach the president if they are accused of a crime.

There are 435 representatives in the House of Representatives. The number of representatives each state gets is based on its population. For example, California has many more representatives than Rhode Island. When Census figures determine that the population of a state has changed significantly, the number of representatives in that state may shift proportionately. Representatives are elected by their states and serve two-year terms. The Speaker of the House, elected by the representatives, is considered the head of the House.

Both parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives elect leaders. The leader of the party that controls the house is called the majority leader. The other party leader is called the minority leader.

See also: Congress

Executive Branch

White House
The White House is where the President works.
Source: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The President of the United States is the head of the executive branch, which makes laws official. The President is elected by the entire country and serves a four-year term. The President approves and carries out laws passed by the legislative branch (or he can veto them). He appoints or removes cabinet members and officials. He negotiates treaties, and acts as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces.

The executive branch also includes the Vice President and other officials, such as members of the cabinet. The cabinet is made up of the heads of the 15 major departments of the government. The cabinet gives advice to the President about important matters.

The Cabinet

  • The Secretary of State
  • The Secretary of the Treasury
  • The Secretary of Defense
  • The Attorney General (Justice Department)
  • The Secretary of the Interior
  • The Secretary of Agriculture
  • The Secretary of Commerce
  • The Secretary of Labor
  • The Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • The Secretary of Homeland Security
  • The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • The Secretary of Transportation
  • The Secretary of Education
  • The Secretary of Energy
  • The Secretary of Veterans' Affairs

The Executive Branch also includes federal agencies like the EPA.

See also: Presidents.

Judicial Branch

U.S. Supreme Court building
The Supreme Court building is where the nine justices meet.
Source: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The judicial branch oversees the court system of the U.S. Through court cases, the judicial branch explains the meaning of the Constitution and laws passed by Congress. The Supreme Court is the head of the judicial branch. Unlike a criminal court, the Supreme Court rules whether something is constitutional or unconstitutional—whether or not it is permitted under the Constitution.

On the Supreme Court there are nine justices, or judges: eight associate justices and one chief justice. The judges are nominated by the President and approved by the Senate. They have no term limits. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Its decisions are final, and no other court can overrule those decisions. Decisions of the Supreme Court set precedents—new ways of interpreting the law.

Significant Supreme Court Cases

  • 1803 Marbury v. Madison— was the first time a law passed by Congress was declared unconstitutional
  • 1857 Dred Scott v. Sanford—Declared that a slave was not a citizen, and that Congress could not outlaw slavery in U.S. territories
  • 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson—Said that racial segregation was legal
  • 1954 Brown v. Board of Education—Made racial segregation in schools illegal
  • 1966 Miranda v. Arizona —stated that criminal suspects must be informed of their rights before being questioned by the police.
  • 1973 Roe v. Wade—Made abortion legal
  • 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger—Ruled that colleges can, under certain conditions, consider race and ethnicity in admissions.
  • 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission The Supreme Court ruled, 5–4, that the government cannot restrict the spending of corporations on political campaigns, maintaining that it's their First Amendment right to support candidates as they choose.
  • 2013 Shelby County v. Holder The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which established a formula for Congress to use when determining if a state or voting jurisdiction requires prior approval before changing its voting laws.

See also: Supreme Court.

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