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At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the framers placed great emphasis on developing a multi-branched government that guaranteed a balanced separation of power between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. To prevent any imbalance of power, they ensured that the Constitution provided an equal foundation for each branch while also designating a precise separation of powers.
Broadly defined as a system established under a constitution that allocates powers exclusively to sections of government, separation of powers ensures that no one branch is more powerful than any other.
This system implicitly allows each branch to specialize in its own aspect of governance, encouraging efficiency. The duties of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches are, respectively, to make, enforce, and interpret the law. To ensure a stable government, the U.S. Constitution is purposefully designed to distribute exclusive powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches; separation of powers empowers each branch to not only uphold but also to specialize in its primary duty.
The legislative branch’s two houses, the Senate and House of Representatives, together possess the power to make laws. Congress’ powers include the abilities to impeach a federal official, levy taxes, regulate commerce, and declare war. Today, the judicial and executive branches can check the power of Congress, but under the Articles of Confederation, only the legislative branch existed. As stated in The Words We Live By, the framers of the Constitution wanted to limit Congress’ power to legislation alone because they believed that more divisions were necessary to manage the government (Monk 26).
The bicameral legislature requires compromise between the two houses and, especially, within each house in order for progress to be made. Currently, partisan lines are often a dividing factor, even in important decisions. For example, President Trump’s impeachment proceedings were decided mostly based on party divisions. The interests of the House of Representatives and those of the Senate conflicted, and, as a result, partisan lines determined the outcome. Separation of powers gives the legislative branch authority in creating the laws of the land and allows Congress to have a limited focus.
The chief role of the executive branch is to enforce the laws. The executive branch and its leader, the president, have powers that enable it to specialize: the power to declare executive orders, act as commander-in-chief of armed services, make treaties, approve or veto laws, and appoint persons to federal offices. As referenced by Monk, executive orders and emergency powers can also be used to handle the economy and security of the country, especially during times of war (Monk 81). During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump used the Defense Production Act (DPA) to control industry and demand more medical supplies during this national crisis.
The broad powers of the executive branch prevent the legislative branch from possessing an unchecked authority to carry out laws independently. However, the executive branch has also undergone changes since its establishment, such as the limitation of presidential terms from indefinite to two terms. Regardless of changes over time, the framers’ intent to confer privileges upon the executive branch to facilitate law enforcement has been preserved.
The judicial branch has the responsibility to interpret the law. Alexander Hamilton, a founding father, believed the judicial branch was the weakest branch because of its limited power of judgment. However, one of Hamilton’s statements endures: the judicial branch is closest to the people and the Constitution (Monk 93). The Constitution prescribes the judicial power to the Supreme Court, which implies certain powers: judicial review, original and appellate jurisdiction, and punishment of offenders of the laws. The power of judicial review, which allows the judiciary to determine if an action is constitutional, stems from the duty to interpret laws. This power has been a subject of scholarly debate due to concerns of personal biases in case rulings.
The judiciary has changed over time to have a more political approach to decisions on the Constitution: conservatives advocate judicial restraint (strict interpretation) and liberals advocate judicial activism (broad interpretation). Through the power to appoint justices, the president can indirectly influence court decisions. In summary, the specific powers provided to the judicial branch advance its ability to concentrate on the law interpretation facet of government.
The U.S. Constitution provides specific, exclusive powers to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government that permit them to specialize in their own feature of government while carrying out their chief duties to the people, creating a stable administration. Separation of powers plays a pivotal role in each branch of the government. First, the legislative branch has a responsibility to make laws. Second, the executive branch has the task of enforcing laws, including both those established by Congress and those given in the Constitution. Finally, the judicial branch has an obligation to interpret laws and determine the constitutionality of an action or law. The relationship of the different branches to the law indicates how each branch is analogous to a puzzle piece, essential to the formation of a fully functional government. For this reason, the framers of the Constitution created three branches, each having its own powers, to establish a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
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