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Three Branches of Government

Legislative Branch
Executive Branch
Judicial Branch

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bird1.jpg (24379 bytes)It was important to the men who wrote the Constitution that they form a government that did not allow one person to have too much control. While under the rule of the British king they learned that this could be a bad system. Yet government under the Articles of Confederation taught them that there was a need for a strong centralized government. With this in mind, the framers wrote the Constitution to provide for three separate, but equally powerful, branches of  government: the Legislative Branch (which writes the laws); the Executive Branch (which carries out the laws); and the Judicial Branch (which reviews the way laws are applied). The separation of powers allows for a system of checks and balances within the government. Each branch is given certain control over the other two, which balances the power and keeps the potential for abuse of power in check. Check out the lyrics to the SchoolHouse Rock song which describes our three branches of government.

Legislative Branch

Article I of the Constitution specifies that there shall be two separate legislative bodies: a House of Representatives and a Senate. Together they are called the Congress. The two bodies of Congress work together to write, debate, and pass bills, which are then passed on to the President for approval. 

capitol3a..JPG (21288 bytes)There are 100 senators and 435 representatives. Each of the 50 states elects 2 senators.  The number of representatives is determined by each state's population. Each member represents an area of the state, known as a congressional district. The number of representatives is based on the number of districts in a state. Therefore, states with larger populations have more representation than states with smaller populations. (ex: California has 53 representatives and Utah has only 4 representatives.)

capitol2.jpg (29413 bytes)Although Congress has numerous responsibilities and powers under the Constitution, its chief function is to make laws.   The legislative process can be quite complicated.  A proposed law, or bill, must pass through a series of steps before it is voted upon on the House and Senate floors. At any one of these steps, a bill can be delayed, defeated, or amended (changed). Most bills that are introduced do not survive this process and do not become law. For more information on how laws are made go to Ben's Guide to U.S. Government or to Thomas: The Legislature Process.  SchoolHouse Rock also offers a musical explanation of How a Bill Becomes a Law

Suppose you had fifteen minutes to describe the ten most important features of the U.S. Congress - could you do it? Don't worry, help is close by. Thomas: U.S. Congress on the Internet is a great source on pending legislation.  Be sure not to miss Congress for Kids' lesson plans and student activities.   

Utah State Legislature

The Utah State Legislature is similar in structure to the Federal Legislature.  There are 29 local elected Senators and 75 members in the House of Representatives.  Do you know who your state legislators are?  Use these interactive maps to locate your Utah Senator and Utah House of Representative

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Executive Branch

eaglecrest1.jpg (43329 bytes)The executive branch of government makes sure that the laws of the United States are obeyed. Article II, section 1, of the Constitution vests the President of the United States the head of the executive branch.  The United States has had 42 Presidents. How many can you name?  How many presidents have we had in your life time?  No women have been elected to the Oval Office, yet women make up half the population of the U.S. Do you think that a woman will be elected president in the next decade? In the next twenty years? Ever? Why do you think a woman has never been elected to the presidency?

The President

To learn more about U.S. Presidency, explore these resources:

Now you should be ready to complete these activities: eagleflag1.jpg (27660 bytes)

Vice President

The Vice President of the United States is second in command.  This person must be ready to become president or acting president at a moment's notice if the president dies, resigns, is removed from office, or becomes unable to perform the duties of office. Only nine of our nation's 45 vice president have had to do this: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald R. Ford.

The Constitution of the United States defines only one official duty for the vice president. He is the president of the U.S. Senate.  The president, however, can choose to delegate additional responsibilities to this person and since 1933, the vice presidents have attended meetings of the president's Cabinet. At this point, only five vice presidents have been successfully elected as president: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon and George Bush.

You may want to read the biographies of Vice Presidents and then take the Vice Presidents Trivia Quiz.

Jackennedy1.jpg (11234 bytes)First Lady

The wife of a president is called the First Lady.  Read about some of our most recent first ladies, Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Lady Bird Johnson, and Jacqueline Kennedy, and learn how they have influenced their husband's administration.  Many of these women were activists for issues of their times.  Discover which first lady was a champion of women's rights, which started a "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign, which supported mental health programs and which focused on adult literacy.  

The Executive branch is very large so the President gets help from the Vice President, department heads (Cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies.

If you have questions for the President, Vice President, or First Lady send them an email message:

The Cabinet

eagleflag2a.jpg (30454 bytes)The Cabinet is composed of the heads of the 14 executive departments: 

  1. Department of Agriculture  (They have a Kids' Site too.)
  2. Department of Commerce
  3. Department of Defense
  4. Department of Education
  5. Department of Energy
  6. Health & Human Services  (Check out the FDA Kids page.)
  7. Housing & Urban Development 
  8. Department of the Interior
  9. Department of Justice  (Have you seen the FBI Kids page?)
  10. Department of Labor
  11. Department of State (Here is a great National Parks site.)
  12. Department of Transportation
  13. Treasury
  14. Veterans' Affairs

Government Agencies

There are several administrative divisions of the government whose job it is to enforce and administer laws and regulations. Because provisions for these agencies were not outlined in the Constitution, they are considered independent extensions of the U.S. government. Here is a list of some of the major agencies.

The Executive Branch at the State level is a bit different than the Federal Level. Instead of having a president, states have Governors. Take a minute to read about Utah's past governors. Other major offices include Lt. Governor, Attorney General, State Treasurer and State Auditor. 

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Judicial Branch

scalesj.gif (4514 bytes)The role of the judicial branch is to interpret the nation's laws. It consists of two separate levels of courts: state courts and  federal courts. The type of court that a case is tried in depends on the law that was allegedly violated. Most of the laws that govern our day-to-day living are state laws. Violations of federal law include offenses involving federal government employees, crimes committed across state lines (for example, kidnapping or evading arrest), and fraud involving the national government (such as income tax or postal fraud).

Utah Courts

The Federal and the Utah State judicial systems include both trial courts and appellate courts. Trail Courts conduct the first hearing of a case, and appellate courts review a trial court's decision at the request of the losing party.  The Utah State Court System is comprised of two appellate courts - the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Utah trial courts include the District Court, Juvenile Courts, and Justice Courts. These courts are located in each of the state's eight judicial districts. If you don't know which district you live in, use the Judicial Locator Map. These courts handle most criminal matters and most legal business concerning marital disputes, probate of estates, land deals, commercial contracts, and other day-to-day matters.

Federal Courts

gavel2.jpg (14160 bytes)The federal courts, in contrast, have power to decide only those cases over which the Constitution gives them authority. These courts are located principally in the larger cities.  If the federal court system is viewed as a pyramid, at the top is the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court. On the next level are the 13 United States Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.

Utah is in the Tenth Circuit along with the states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming, plus those portions of the Yellowstone National Park extending into Montana and Idaho. On the following level are the 94 U.S. district courts and the specialized courts, such as the Tax Court, the Court of Federal Claims, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and the Court of International Trade. The U.S. District Court for Utah is located in Salt Lake City.

supremecrt2.gif (26796 bytes)Federal cases are usually begun at the district court level. If a party is not satisfied with the decision, they may have the decision reviewed in one of the courts of appeals. If dissatisfied with the decision of a court of appeals, the party may seek additional review in the Supreme Court of the United States; however, the Supreme Court primarily reviews only cases that involve a matter of great national importance and only accepts a small number of cases each term. Read some of the current and past Supreme Court Decisions. Have some fun and take a Virtual Tour of the Supreme Court Building. (Note: You need the QuickTime 4.1 plugin installed.)

Jury Service

The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees a speedy, fair trial before a jury of one's peers. A jury consists of 12 people who are selected to hear the evidence in a trial. After the jurors hear the evidence presented during the trial, they must try to decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty. Read Utah's Guide to Jury Service and then answer the following questions:

You can get a good idea what is involved in a trial by exploring the Famous Trials web site.

Judges / Justices

Courts are presided over by judicial officers. In the courts of appeals, district courts, and other courts, most of the judicial officers are called judges. Where a jury is used, the jury decides questions of fact and the judge decides all questions of law.   When all the evidence has been heard, and the lawyers for both sides have addressed the jury, the judge charges the jury, telling it what rules of law apply to the case. A jury is not always used. In some cases, the law requires a judge to decide on the facts. Or perhaps the parties do not want a jury to decide the case. In these cases, the judge decides based on fact and law.

Utah's highest court is the state supreme court. This court has five justices, elected to 10-year terms. The justice with the shortest remaining period in office serves as chief justice.  Each of Utah's 8 districts has one or more district court judges, depending on population.

In the United States Supreme Court, the judicial officers are called justices.  There are currently nine justices on the Court: a chief justice and eight associate justices. When a vacancy opens, the President nominates a new justice who is then confirmed or rejected by the Senate. Take a minute to learn about each of the nine justices:

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Illustrations by David Chen © 1997. All rights reserved Utah Education Network.