Since a lot of our first podcast, May It Please The Court, assumes some basic knowledge about our branches of government, here is a quick review of how the U.S. legal system functions.
Our three branches of government are the legislative branch (Senate, House of Representatives), the executive branch (the President, or Governor at the state level), and the judicial branch (judges). Each of these branches holds specific powers to check and balance one another.
Article I of the Constitution established the legislative branch. Its job is to create laws. Because legislators are directly elected by the people and because there’s a lot of turnaround thanks to bi-ennial congressional elections, the Constitution gives this branch a good chunk of power.
Article II is about the executive branch, which at a federal level means the President of the United States. The President is also directly elected but every four years. Since it’s only one person, the executive branch does not have the power to create laws, but its job is to mainly enforce the law. The position also comes with added perks such as being Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. army, the ability to nominate a cabinet as well as judges, and veto power over legislation. With that said though, only Congress has the power to declare war and also the power to approve all cabinet members and judges. Also, even if the President does veto legislation, Congress can override the veto with a 2/3rds majority vote in each chamber.
Finally, Article III is about the judicial branch. While there are multiple levels to the judiciary, the nation’s Supreme Court comprises of 9 justices whose job it is to interpret the law. Historically, the Supreme Court would resolve ambiguities within the law. When situations played out, judges did their best to rule in a way that’s consistent with the law’s intent. But on top of that, the Court also now holds the power to overturn both the legislative branch and the executive branch.
Isn’t that a lot of power though? Well, not necessarily. The Court’s ability to overturn laws or policies can only be used if there’s an inconsistency with the U.S. Constitution. The President gets to veto legislation for any reason at all, but the Supreme Court can only invalidate laws when there is a constitutional issue. The general position is that the Constitution is the most supreme law of the land. Any legislation or executive action that is inconsistent with it is automatically void. And whose job is it to interpret words and decide what they mean? The judiciary’s!
While some people challenge the question of whether the Court should have the right to determine what is constitutional, over the last century and half, the Supreme Court has enjoyed the ability to determine whether certain laws violate the Constitution. The main reason people disapprove of this part of the system is because unlike the other branches, judges are often appointed for life, and Supreme Court justices are not directly elected.
But despite these criticisms, it’s fair to say that the judiciary has the least amount of power because it cannot create laws, only interpret them. And if ever the Court rules something in a way that’s so inconsistent with the views of the people, the power comes full circle to the legislative branch that can always amend the Constitution. Amendments are not exactly easy to ratify though – they require a ¾ vote from Congress and ratification from ¾ of the states. But, the power is always retained by the people to amend the Constitution if need be.
And that’s basically how the three branches work. The people elect legislators and a President, expecting them to create and carry out laws, trusting the President to veto legislation for whatever reason. These two branches work together to appoint judges to the judiciary for lifelong terms whose job it is to interpret the laws that are passed and ensure that none of them violate the Constitution. And if the judges do declare a law unconstitutional, the people can always change the Constitution.