Constitutional Separation of Powers in the US

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Aerial view of Capitol Hill looking east, showing the Capitol, Supreme Court Building, Library of Congress, and congressional office buildings.

The Constitution brilliantly separates federal power among three branches of government by creating a system of checks and balances designed to protect personal rights.

Separation of powers is vital to the integrity of the democratic process as defined by the Constitution. In short, separation of powers was designed to ensure that no one branch of government can become so powerful as to neutralize the other two branches. The result should be a federal or national government attuned to the welfare of the people as expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution. This means the passage of meaningful legislation as well as the protection of personal liberties and rights detailed in the Bill of Rights, or the first ten Amendments to the Constitution.

How Separation of Powers Limits each of the Three Branches

The Legislative Branch (detailed in Article One) consists of two chambers or “houses” that, together, are referred to as the “Congress.” The “lower” chamber is called the House of Representatives while the “upper” chamber is called the Senate. Although each chamber of the Congress has a role in initiating legislation (bills or “Acts of Congress”), they also hold responsibility for specific or “express powers.” The House of Representatives, for example, has the express power to coin money while the Senate ratifies treaties and confirms appointments made by the Executive branch of government (the President).

A bill passed by both Houses of Congress requires the signature of the chief executive or President to pass and become law. If the President vetoes the bill, it goes back to Congress. It can still become a law if both houses vote to override the veto, but this requires a 2/3rds majority in both Houses. One important aspect of separation of powers involves impeachment. If a President abuses his powers and is found guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” Congress can remove him from office.

The Judicial Branch of Government

The federal judiciary also serves to “check” the actions not only of Congress and the President, but laws passed by the various states that might be considered “unconstitutional,” that is, they contradict some aspect of Constitutional provisions and guarantees. Judges or “justices” are appointed to the federal courts by the Executive branch (the President) but must be confirmed by the Senate. This is yet another “check” designed to ensure the integrity of the courts.

Congress can pass a bill signed by the President that, in some way, violates one or more Constitutional guarantees such as free speech, freedom to worship, or privacy rights. Individuals or groups hurt by the passage of the bill can take their grievance to the federal courts and seek a remedy for their loss of liberties. The ultimate and final appeal resides with the Supreme Court. Today, nine justices serving on the “high court” decide such matters whether they pertain to federal or state laws.

Complexities Involved in the Separation of Powers

This brief article cannot fully detail the vast complexities associated with Constitutional separation of powers and the “checks and balances” of government. Those interested in further study of this issue should read the first three articles of the Constitution and see the limitations of powers each branch is held to.

Separation of powers guarantees a fully democratic process. The rights of all citizens are protected, including minorities. The protection and guarantee of these individual rights and liberties begins at the ballot box on Election Day, where citizens can select men and women to represent them in the Congress or elect someone President. While citizens cannot vote for federal judges, their choices for the Legislative and Executive branches will influence the ideological views of judges appointed and confirmed by the other two branches.

References:

  1. Robert A. Burt, The Constitution in Conflict (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992)
  2. Alfred H. Kelly and Winfred A. Harbison, The American Constitution: Its Origins and Development, Fifth Edition (W. W. Norton & Company, 1976)