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The White House

photo of the White House

US Capitol


National Archives and Records Administration


The United States of America is a constitutional republic. The nation derives it existence and operation from a formal document outlining the function and role of the government in relationship to its citizens. The "republic" portion refers to the notion that the state derives its authority from representatives selected by the citizens of that state.

The United States was established when nine states adopted the Constitution in 1787. The Constitution is the defining document of the U.S. political system, establishing the political and judicial processes followed today.

One key innovation made in the U.S. Constitution was the establishment of "checks and balances" between major elements of the government. Effectively, the Constitution created a nation in which the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches are all co-equal. This means that at anytime one branch can void or nullify the decision(s) of another. The tabs shown in this panel provide a brief overview of the branches of government established by the Constitution.

The Executive Branch implements, manages, and oversees the enforcement of legislation enacted by Congress. 

President -- is the head of state and commander-in-chief of the military. The president functions as the executive in charge of federal agencies, enforces the laws created by Congress.

President's Cabinet -- are agency leaders and advisors to the president. The Cabinet was established by Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution. 

Federal Agencies -- are tasked with many and varying duties and tasks, from education to space exploration to security. Agencies are created by an enabling statue, which set their responsibilities, authority, and structure. Over the years, these agencies by be expanded, reduced or even eliminated.

The Legislative Branch enacts legislation, confirms or rejects presidential appointments, oversees the nations budget, ratifies treaties, and has the authority to declare war. The U.S. legislature is divided into the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, each with their own rules and government functions.

U.S. House of Representatives -- is lead by the Speaker of the House. The Speaker is 2rd in the line of succession to the president. The House is the larger of the cambers with over 435 elected representatives. Representatives are allocated proportionally among the 50 states based on state population in the last census. Representatives serve two-year terms, and there are no limits to the number of terms a representative may serve.

U.S. Senate -- is lead by the Senate Majority Leader. The Senate is the smaller of the two chambers. Senators serve six-year terms, with no term limits. Only two senators are elected from each state, totaling 100 senators.

The Judicial Branch provides the mechanism by which disputes may be resolved and challenges to legislation can be brought. The U.S. Courts were created under Article III of the U.S. Constitution. There are many levels and responsibilities given to various courts. This overview merely touches on the very basic functions of the three main courts in the Judicial System.

U.S. Supreme Court -- consists of 9 justices and is the "highest court in the land," as it is the final arbiter of disputes. The decisions or opinions may uphold or overturn previous rulings by "lower" courts, set precedent (state how similar disputes should be settled in the future), overturn legislation, and/or suggest how legislation needs to be changed into to bring it inline with the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has sole discretion to decide which cases it hears. 

U.S. Court of Appeals -- is between the District Courts and the Supreme Court. Decisions made at this level are determined solely by a panel of three judges. They are tasked with determining if decisions at the District Court applied the law correctly.

U.S. District Courts -- resolve disputes by determining the facts of a case and applying existing legal precedent. District Courts may use either judges or a jury to decide cases. Many of the decisions made by District Courts may be appealed.

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