One thing is clear to me. Our schools have failed to teach constitutional law and the separation of powers to whole generations of Americans.
Schoolhouse Rock explained our government and the separation of powers very well in their Three Ring Government video.
There are three branches of government – Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. The President is in charge of the Executive Branch. He or she runs the day to day business of the government through federal agencies such as the Department of Education (note – teach more about government), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and many more agencies.
The Legislative Branch is Congress. They pass the laws that govern this country. Congress gives “advice and consent” to the President in the appointment of Supreme Court Judges (all federal judges), the Attorney General, agency heads, and ambassadors. Congress also gives “advice and consent” to the President to sign treaties with other nations. Article II, Section 2, U.S. Constitution.
The Judicial Branch is our court system. At the federal level there are District Courts (trial courts) in each state, 13 Circuit Courts of Appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court picks and chooses which cases it hears; the Circuit Courts of Appeal are often the final decision makers.
These three branches of government act as a system of checks and balances with each other. We are seeing this played out every day. Congress is deciding whether or not to approve the President’s agency appointments. The federal courts are telling the President he has overreached his authority with his Executive Order on immigration and refugees. State of Washington and State of Minnesota v. Trump. Our current government is a civics lesson on display for all to see each and every day. We rarely have the opportunity to see our system work so clearly or to hear constitutional experts tell us on national television how our system of government works.
As a lawyer, I have always felt that the courts and the law are the greatest protection we have as citizens. My favorite scene from Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, sums this up very well.
“William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Thomas More: …And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”
As a self-professed law geek I am fascinated (and alternately appalled) to see this all play out. I will continue to monitor it all with great interest.
For those of you in Nebraska, an even more fascinating scenario is playing out in our Unicameral. Tune in to NET on demand and watch them in action, or perhaps inaction. Tomorrow is Day 24 of the session, and they have not adopted their permanent rules for this session. Senator Ernie Chambers (with a few other Senators) is holding the legislature hostage, promising to keep the Legislature tied up through the 90th day unless they stop trying to change the number of votes needed for a cloture motion (Cloture motions are filed when a supporter of a bill wants to end a filibuster). Senator Chambers is a master of the Legislature’s rules, and he tells the new Senators they have no idea what he can do. So he tells them what he plans to do, and so far they can’t figure out how to stop him. Stay tuned for a wild session.
Note: this explanation is a very simplistic explanation of our system of government and not meant to be a thorough examination of all the many intricacies of our Constitution.