What are the roles of the three branches of our federal government? What powers does each one have?Why did the framers of the Constitution decide to divide power between these three branches?
The federal government was designed with three separate, but equal, branches to divide up the power vested in our national government. The framers of the constitution were all too familiar with centralizing power in one executive or one legislative body, so a balance was struck. This idea of shared powers was first struck upon by Baron de Montesquieu, and adopted by the Constitutional Convention.
The Legislative Branch makes all federal laws. Any written legislation must be created in one of the two houses of our bicameral legislature; the Senate and the House of Representatives. Each of the two houses represents a different aspect of our country. In the Senate, the states are represented, giving even those with a small population the power to affect national policy. In the House, the people are represented, allowing those states with the most population to control the course of government. The legislative branch, more commonly known as congress, also oversees the federal budget, trade, post offices, confirms appointments and collects taxes.
The Executive Branch enforces or enacts all laws. This branch contains the president, the vice president, the cabinet and all federal departments and their employees. It is the responsibility of this branch to take the laws congress makes and put them into action. If congress passes a law protecting a national park, the corresponding department of the executive branch hires the staff, allocates the money provides by congress, builds the infrastructure and enforces the laws. Much of this power is concentrated in the office of the Chief Executive (president) who also has command of the armed forces, the ability to pardon, the power to make treaties and the ability to appoint judges and other federal officials.
The Judicial Branch interprets the laws. It is the job of this branch to review any discrepancies that may occur with the laws or the constitution and clarify them for future generations. This branch is made up of our federal court system, which has three layers; Trial, Appellate and the Supreme Court. There are also specialized courts, such as Tax Court and the Veterans Court, each with specific responsibilities. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, and is made up of nine justices, one of which is the Chief Justice. The court mediates disputes between the states, resolves issue of constitutionality and also resolves conflicts between state and federal agencies.
To begin with the Judicial Branch, the most important power (or function) construed from interpreting the Constitution is the power of judicial review; that is the power to interpret the Constitution and determine if/when the law under review is supported by or repugnant to the Constitution. Those laws considered repugnant are declared unconstitutional and are thereby unenforceable by the courts.
The executive power has been expanded by the creation of the several cabinet offices. The constitution does not provide for the creation of a Presidential Cabinet, however every President since Washington has appointed a cabinet to assist with the proper function of the executive branch.
The Constitution provides that the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in:
one Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress shall from time to time ordain and establish.
Congress has acted under this power to create the entire federal court system below the Supreme Court, as well as to determine the number of justices who sit on the court. Originally set at nine, the Court is now comprised of nine justices, although Congress may modify that number at any time.