The founders of the United States Constitution knew it was important to form a government that did not allow one person to have too much control. While under control of the British monarchical government, they found that too much power corrupts. Yet government under the Articles of Confederation taught them that there was a need for a strong centralized government. With this in mind, the men wrote the Constitution to provide for three separate, but equally powerful branches of government known as the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch. The separation of powers allows for a system of checks and balances within the government. Each branch is given certain control over the other two, which distributes the power and keeps abuse of power to a minimum.
The Legislative Branch
The first article of the Constitution states that there shall be a bicameral legislature containing two separate legislative bodies: a House of Representatives and a Senate, called Congress. The two bodies of Congress work together to write, debate, and pass bills, which are then passed on to the President for approval.
There are 100 senators and 435 representatives. Each state has two senators, whereas a state’s population determines the number of representatives. Each member represents an area of the state called a congressional district, and the number of representatives is based on the number of districts a state has. Densely populated states, like New York, would have more representatives than a sparsely populated state, such as Montana.
The Senate: The Upper House
The citizens of the United States elect our senators, although it hasn’t always been that way. Before the 17th Amendment was passed, each state’s legislature would elect them. Also, not just anyone is able to run for the Senate. There are certain qualifications a senator must have. They must be 30 years of age, have been a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and must reside in the state they seek to represent. A senator is elected for a six-year term, and there is no limit on the number of times a person may be elected.
The Senate has specified powers named by the Constitution; it serves as the judge and jury of impeachment trials, appoints certain officials, and has the power to approve treaties made by the executive government, among others. The Senate and the House must agree on all of the bills passed, and is done so during certain conference committees.
The House of Representatives
This house of Congress is known as the lower house. The qualifications to be a representative are more relaxed than those to be a senator. A representative must be 25 years old, must have been a citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and must also reside in the state in which they represent. A representative is not required to live in the district they represent, but some state laws require this.
The Senate has specific powers, and so does the House. The House has the power to Although Congress has numerous responsibilities and powers under the Constitution, its chief function is to make laws. The legislative process can be quite complicated. A proposed law, or bill, must pass through a series of steps before it is voted upon on the House and Senate floors. At any one of these steps, a bill can be delayed, defeated, or amended (changed). Most bills that are introduced do not survive this process and do not become law.
Suppose you had fifteen minutes to describe the ten most important features of the U.S. Congress — could you do it? Don’t worry, help is close by.
The executive branch of government makes sure that the laws of the United States are obeyed. Article II, section 1, of the Constitution vests the President of the United States the head of the executive branch. The United States has had 42 Presidents. How many can you name? How many presidents have we had in your life time? No women have been elected to the Oval Office, yet women make up half the population of the U.S. Do you think that a woman will be elected president in the next decade? In the next twenty years? Ever? Why do you think a woman has never been elected to the presidency?
The Vice President of the United States is second in command. This person must be ready to become president or acting president at a moment’s notice if the president dies, resigns, is removed from office, or becomes unable to perform the duties of office. Only nine of our nation’s 45 vice president have had to do this: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald R. Ford.
The wife of a president is called the First Lady. Read about some of our most recent first ladies, Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, and Jacqueline Kennedy, and learn how they have influenced their husband’s administration. Many of these women were activists for issues of their times. Discover which first lady was a champion of women’s rights, which started a «Just Say No to Drugs» campaign, which supported mental health programs and which focused on adult literacy.
The Executive branch is very large so the President gets help from the Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies.
The Cabinet is composed of the heads of the 14 executive departments.
There are several administrative divisions of the government whose job it is to enforce and administer laws and regulations. Because provisions for these agencies were not outlined in the Constitution, they are considered independent extensions of the U.S. government.
The Executive Branch at the State level is a bit different than the Federal Level. Instead of having a president, states have Governors. Take a minute to read about Utah’s past governors. Other major offices include Lt. Governor, Attorney General, State Treasurer and State Auditor.
The role of the judicial branch is to interpret the nation’s laws. It consists of two separate levels of courts: state courts and federal courts. The type of court that a case is tried in depends on the law that was allegedly violated. Most of the laws that govern our day-to-day living are state laws. Violations of federal law include offenses involving federal government employees, crimes committed across state lines (for example, kidnapping or evading arrest), and fraud involving the national government (such as income tax or postal fraud).
The Federal and the Utah State judicial systems include both trial courts and appellate courts. Trail Courts conduct the first hearing of a case, and appellate courts review a trial court’s decision at the request of the losing party. The Utah State Court System is comprised of two appellate courts — the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Utah trial courts include the District Court, Juvenile Courts, and Justice Courts. These courts are located in each of the state’s eight judicial districts. If you don’t know which district you live in, use the Judicial Locator Map. These courts handle most criminal matters and most legal business concerning marital disputes, probate of estates, land deals, commercial contracts, and other day-to-day matters.
The federal courts, in contrast, have power to decide only those cases over which the Constitution gives them authority. These courts are located principally in the larger cities. If the federal court system is viewed as a pyramid, at the top is the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court. On the next level are the 13 United States Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
Utah is in the Tenth Circuit along with the states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, plus those portions of the Yellowstone National Park extending into Montana and Idaho. On the following level are the 94 U.S. district courts and the specialized courts, such as the Tax Court, the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and the Court of International Trade. The U.S. District Court for Utah is located in Salt Lake City.
Federal cases are usually begun at the district court level. If a party is not satisfied with the decision, they may have the decision reviewed in one of the courts of appeals. If dissatisfied with the decision of a court of appeals, the party may seek additional review in the Supreme Court of the United States; however, the Supreme Court primarily reviews only cases that involve a matter of great national importance and only accepts a small number of cases each term.
The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees a speedy, fair trial before a jury of one’s peers. A jury consists of 12 people who are selected to hear the evidence in a trial. After the jurors hear the evidence presented during the trial, they must try to decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Read Utah’s Guide to Jury Service and then answer the following questions:
Judges / Justices
Courts are presided over by judicial officers. In the courts of appeals, district courts, and other courts, most of the judicial officers are called judges. Where a jury is used, the jury decides questions of fact and the judge decides all questions of law. When all the evidence has been heard, and the lawyers for both sides have addressed the jury, the judge charges the jury, telling it what rules of law apply to the case. A jury is not always used. In some cases, the law requires a judge to decide on the facts. Or perhaps the parties do not want a jury to decide the case. In these cases, the judge decides based on fact and law.
Utah’s highest court is the state supreme court. This court has five justices, elected to 10-year terms. The justice with the shortest remaining period in office serves as chief justice. Each of Utah’s 8 districts has one or more district court judges, depending on population.
In the United States Supreme Court, the judicial officers are called justices. There are currently nine justices on the Court: a chief justice and eight associate justices. When a vacancy opens, the President nominates a new justice who is then confirmed or rejected by the Senate.