Legalese — Separation of Powers

Most of us are aware of the three branches of government – the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial.  However, other than the basic awareness, it seems from many social media posts, often by people who work and serve in those branches of government, not everyone understands the interplay and functions of those three branches of government and why they are separate.

The original idea was that power would not be concentrated in any one place so that there wouldn’t be a King or monarch or single source of power in America.  We experienced that under the King of England, and we didn’t like it very much.  Instead, the creators of our system of government decided that different powers would be placed in different places in our government, and those different places would be able to balance each other out, with each being able to check the power of the other.  This would, in theory, eliminate tyranny.  “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton.  Our system of government, with its three branches, ensures that there is no absolute power.

The Legislative Branch is the part of the government that is most directly connected to the people.  Legislators are lawmakers who are elected directly by the citizens to make laws.  Laws are the rules by which we have agreed, through our representative legislators, to be governed by.  Without laws, we have anarchy. 

The Executive Branch carries out the laws and enforces them.  The Executive Branch does not make laws, it only makes sure that the laws created by the Legislative Branch are executed.  The military and police are part of the Executive Branch because they are the folks that enforce the laws.  They make you do right – right being defined by the laws created by the legislature.

The Judicial Branch interprets the laws and regulates disputes.  The Judicial Branch also acts as a check against the legislature to make sure that the Legislative Branch doesn’t make any laws that are contrary to the ultimate law of the land, the Constitution.  The reason why federal judges are given lifetime appointments is so that they aren’t beholden to politics and can make decisions and rule on cases without the fear of being removed for political reasons because they have angered the Executive or Legislative Branches.  The State and Local Judiciaries don’t have that kind of protection. 

In the Federal Government, the President is the head of the Executive Branch, Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate) is the Legislative Branch, and the Supreme Court is the head of the Judicial Branch.  On the State level, the Governor is the head of the Executive Branch, the State Legislature is the Legislative Branch, and the State Supreme Court heads up the Judicial Branch.  On a local level, the Mayor is the head of the Executive Branch, the City Council is the Legislative Branch, and the Municipal Court is the Judicial Branch. 

In theory, at least, none of these branches is more powerful than the others.  The President is no more powerful than Congress which is no more powerful than the Supreme Court.  Same on the local level – the Mayor is no more powerful than the City Council, which is no more powerful than the Court. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.  As Lord Acton said, power corrupts, and once people get a taste of it, they don’t always want to restrain their power to their own boundaries.  The vast majority of public servants enter the public service for the right reasons, and most of them retain that set of values.  But not everyone, as the kids these days say, stays in their lanes and as we know from driver’s education, when you fail to maintain your lane, that’s when accidents occur and innocent people get hurt.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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