Students write about ‘Separate Branches, Balanced Powers’
Law Day is a national effort of the American Bar Association that occurs on May 1 around the country. It has its roots in the Cold War and was a conscious counterpoint to the Soviet-era May Day parades. It retains contemporary relevance as a program to promote the values that the rule of law contributes to our democracy.
The Nevada County Bar Association celebrates Law Day in September in concert with the Nevada County Superior Court and the Nevada County schools (in these days of standardized exams, the kids are too busy in May).
This year’s national Law Day theme was “Liberty Under Law: Separate Branches, Balanced Powers.” The American Bar Association chose this topic in the context of current controversies regarding assertions of authority by the Bush administration. The Union’s readers will be familiar with the controversy regarding military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, data-mining of telephone calls by the National Security Agency without oversight by the specialized court established in the Nixon era under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and the Bush administration’s use of presidential signing statements that limit or interpret statutes signed into law by the President.
Our student essayists, however, have viewed the question of the separation of powers in a more historical light. The most recent constitutional contest of the branch’s respective powers cited by any essayist was the impeachment of Richard Nixon – before any of our contestants were born. Apparently, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and calls for the impeachment of George Bush are not on our youngsters’ minds yet.
In a time when more Americans can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of our federal government, it is a delight to read such articulate, well-informed arguments by our young people. The Nevada County Bar Association is pleased to have sponsored this contest, as each entrant has gained some better understanding of the roots of our democracy, and with that understanding, can do his or her part to protect and maintain it.
Jonathan Hyland, Nevada Union senior
Governments have risen and fallen throughout the ages due to the instability of leadership and power. Our forefathers created a defining governing body.
It was their great idea to split the government into three separate bodies with equal power. This created the checks and balances system, which still works effectively today. This system, which was created via our Constitution, was a vital part of democracy in the past and continues to be in the present and future.
The checks and balances system is necessary for our democracy because each part of the government limits the other parts; and more importantly, each branch needs the others to operate efficiently.
In history, trouble has occurred when a single person or party took complete control of the government. That is why all three of the branches limit each other’s power. The executive branch, the president, is often considered the strongest of the three. He limits the legislative and judiciary branches using the ability to veto bills and appoint Supreme Court justices.
The legislative branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate. This group of people controls the executive branch through its power to overturn vetoes and to impeach. Members of the House and the Senate limit the Supreme Court through their ability to initiate amendments to the Constitution.
Finally, the judicial branch is comprised of our courts, most notably the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has the power of judicial review. This allows it to review laws or actions of people and declare if they are unconstitutional. Every branch restricts the other two; this keeps power distributed equally by using checks and balances.
When someone needs another to help him out, and the other needs the same, they often cooperate to promote better efficiency. The same principle applies to our three branches. Each body of government needs the other two in order to operate effectively and achieve its goals. When all three branches are working together their power is greater, but it is still equal, so no one has the upper hand. An example in which one branch needs the other two is the process of bills being passed.
The legislative branch draws up a potential bill. Congressional members then need the president to sign it, and finally, they have to make sure it is constitutional through the Supreme Court. By working together, they spread their power equally amongst each other; with equal power there is a lower risk of one branch taking over This cooperation enables them to focus on the needs of the people other than their own agendas.
People have always struggled for more power; with the three branch system in place in our government, they are unable to do so. Instead, they work together to get agendas passed. As the three parts of government work together, there is a reduced risk of a one branch takeover, and they limit each other from gaining too much strength. The three-branch system is crucial in our democracy.
Iris Malone, Nevada Union senior
Since the Founding Father’s original conception of a system of governmental checks and balances, the three branches of government have limited each other’s authority through exercise of judicial review, vetoes and legislation. The Constitution’s division of power preserves the rights of citizens inherent in a democratic legal system.
A system featuring separation of powers descends from the Enlightenment’s democratic dreams. Philosophers Charles Montesquieu and John Locke both envisioned a democratic government radically different from history’s European monarchies. Opposed to the autocracies of the era, Montesquieu felt that “when the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person … there can be no liberty” (“The Spirit of the Laws,” 1748). Locke’s philosophy of natural rights (including life, liberty and property) became a vital foundation in America’s democratic aspirations as shown by Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Alexander Hamilton advocates for this system of a separation of powers in Federalist Paper 51 when he writes:
“Each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others … the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.”
As a representative democracy yields to the interests of its numerous factions, it protects voters’ rights by representing them. When an undemocratic government centralizes its authority, the personal ambitions of a single branch presides over the rights of the people it represents.
Dictators such as Adolf Hitler abuse their authority to pursue tyrannical agendas. Although elected democratically, the lack of the separation of powers in the German government allowed Hitler to seek personal interests through atrocities like the Holocaust.
Domestically, historians often cite the presidency of Richard Nixon as an “imperial presidency” because of its abuse of separation of powers. After Congress delegated military authority to the executive in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Burger Court began a period of judicial deference, Nixon built upon his presidential power to consolidate enough authority to pursue his own ambitions without any initial repercussions.
Enhancing presidential powers (or those of any branch) undermines the authority of the other branches, thus resulting in tyrannical despotism. Justice Louis Brandeis criticizes a disregard of the system of checks and balances because “the doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted … to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was … to save the people from autocracy.” Eventually, the system of the separation of powers began to resolve Nixon’s tyranny through Congressional impeachment hearings.
Separation of powers is a vital foundation of a democratic legal system. Its system of checks and balances ensures competing self-interests in each branch, thereby restricting the authority of the other branches. Overlapping authority from these checks and balances forces the branches to work together. Thus, the disparate branches of government all uphold their common interests, namely, the liberties of the citizens they represent in this democracy.
Separation of powers preserves the rights of its citizens in a democratic legal system.
Marie Paquin, Bear River High School Junior
Over the ages, many governments have existed without separate branches of government, but these states usually experienced limited freedoms under their strict monarchs.
The separation of power is a vital base for a strong, free nation. The institution of the three separate branches in the American Constitution allows for the operating of a stable democratic system. Time has demonstrated that power corrupts; to maintain a free and democratic government, a division of power is crucial.
America’s Founding Fathers knew from years under an oppressive monarch that without some restraint on a leader’s power, a tyranny would eventually evolve. Although at that time the king was sharing a small amount of power with the English parliament, nothing radical and lasting had yet been established. For though a new leader or party might start with good ideals and intentions, over time that idealism corrodes or successors do not continue with the same effort, leading to a corrupt government and an abuse of power. From the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers, the founders of America erected the three branches of government, which still exist today. The legislative branch was created to make laws, the judicial to judge laws, and the executive to enforce them. These three segments of the American government keep each other in check, never allowing one to get too powerful, keeping America free and democratic.
The men who drew up the Constitution knew how corruptive power could be, so they established the three separate branches to check and balance each other. Each and every branch has a specific purpose, and they create the three corners of a political triangle, each maintaining and performing their duties, to keep the American nation strong. The legislative branch is the United States’ most obvious and true form of democracy. The two houses, the Senate and the House of Representatives, were created to best represent the many states. All citizens of the proper age may vote for their state congressmen and representatives whom they think will best represent the people. These representatives then do their best for the people they serve when voting and debating on new bills.
The president, or the executive branch, then has the power to veto or send back any new bills. However, the genius of this democracy is that a larger majority by the representative body can override the president’s veto. The bill is then sent on to the judicial branch, where it is examined to make sure it protects citizens’ rights and agrees with the Constitution.
Each and every branch founded in the U.S. Constitution has a specific and essential purpose. Without any one, the American democracy would be terribly incomplete. The separate pillars of government allow democracy to remain stable and prevent any one branch or person from gaining too much power. As James Madison said, “The accumulation of all power … in the same hands … may justly be pronounced as the very definition of tyranny.”
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