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Separation of Powers: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 0:55 Separation of Central…
  • 2:00 Separation Within…
  • 3:57 Ineligibility Clause
  • 4:34 System of Checks & Balances
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Laurel Click

Laurel has taught social studies courses at the high school level and has a master's degree in history.

Separation of powers is the distribution of political authority within a government. Learn more about how separation of power works in the United States, then check your understanding of this topic with a quiz.

Definition of Separation of Powers

Simply put, separation of powers is the distribution of political authority that provides a system of checks and balances to ensure that no single branch becomes too powerful or infringes on the rights of the citizens. Baron de Montesquieu, an 18th-century French enlightenment thinker, is credited with his use of the term 'separation of powers;' however, separation of powers was utilized by ancient Greeks. The United States is based on this idea of separate branches of government with distinct responsibilities. Power is separated in the U.S. government in two important ways. First, power is divided between the national and state governments, and second, power is divided amongst the three branches of national government.

Separation of Power Between Central and State Governments

The United States is a federal system of government in which power is separated between the central government - sometimes referred to as national or federal government - and state governments. Powers originally assigned to the central government by the citizens of the United States are enumerated - sometimes referred to as delegated - in the Constitution. Those powers not assigned to the central government in the Constitution are reserved or left up to the states, unless states are specifically denied certain powers.

Different roles are performed by the central and state governments. The U.S. government takes responsibility for national issues, such as finance, commerce, national defense and foreign affairs. States deal with local issues, such as education, public safety and public health. Some roles are concurrent, or shared, such as the power to tax.

Separation of Power Within the Central Government

As outlined in the Constitution, power within the central government is also separated into and carried out by three branches: the legislative, the executive and the judicial branches.

The legislative branch is a two-house Congress, also known as a bicameral legislature, made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives. It has the power to make federal laws that apply to the entire nation. It also has the power to appropriate money to carry out laws, establish all lower federal courts, override a presidential veto and impeach the president.

The executive branch has the power to carry out and enforce federal laws using federal departments and agencies, a cabinet and regulations. The president is the chief executive of this branch, which also oversees the military. The powers of the executive branch also include veto power over all bills (before they become laws), the ability to appoint judges and other officials, the ability to make treaties and power to issue pardons.

The judicial branch is comprised of federal courts and has the power to interpret federal laws by hearing arguments about the meaning of laws and how they are carried out. The Supreme Court also has the power of judicial review, which is the ability to determine if a law or executive act is in agreement with the Constitution or not.

State governments are also organized similarly to the central government. Each has a constitution that provides for separation of powers among legislative, judicial and executive branches. The chief executive of a state is the governor.

Ineligibility Clause

Did you ever wonder why President Obama had to give up his Senate seat in order to become president? To reinforce the separation of powers, the Constitution states that no member of Congress may serve, at the same time, in another branch of federal government. Therefore, Barack Obama had to resign his position as Senator of Illinois before he took office as U.S. President. The Constitution, through the Ineligibility Clause, dictates that individuals may not simultaneously serve in the executive and judicial branches.

A System of Checks and Balances

The Constitution says that each branch has some powers to affect decisions of the other branches. Such a system of partially shared responsibility is called checks and balances. Powers are balanced so that one branch can prevent excessive control of another by checking its actions. Some examples of how the separation of powers 'checks' other branches include:

  • Agreement of two-thirds of both Congress and the states are required for the adoption of amendments.
  • The president has veto power over congressional legislation, but his treaties and major appointments require the consent of the Senate.
  • Congress can impeach the president and federal judges, but the courts have the final say on the interpretation of the Constitution.

The system of checks and balances makes it difficult for the government to become tyrannical or oppressive, since each branch of government must be accountable to the others.

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