The United States Constitution is the highest law in the land, along with the laws made in obedience to the Constitution and the Treaties adopted by the Senate of the United States. It establishes a federal system with one central government and several states. When the constitution was passed in 1787, there were thirteen states. Since 1959, there have been 50. There is also a special capital territory, the District of Columbia, that is not a part of any state. The United States also adminsters the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The constitution created three independent branches of government;
- the executive, which consists of the President, his cabinet, and the civil service;
- the legislature, which consists of the House of Representatives (which is apportioned by the population of each state) and the Senate (where each state gets two representatives); and
- the judiciary, which consists of the federal court system.
States have a similar govermment structure, but the chief executive officer of the state is a Governor.
The executive is elected every four years. Members of the House of Representatives face election every two years. Members of the Senate are elected to six year terms and are elected in a staggered fashion so that one third of them, more or less, are elected every two years.
The federal judiciary is entirely appointed. Judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and generally serve for life. The method for choosing state judges varies widely from state to state with some judges being elected and others being appointed.
The federal government and each state have their own separate court system.
The highest court in the federal system is the Supreme Court of the United States, often abbreviated as SCOTUS. Below that are eleven circuit Court of Appeals, each of which covers a particular geographic area. Below those are United States District Courts. There are also specialized courts for bankruptcy and tax within the District Court system. All federal judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
States have a variety of courts, generally a Court of Appeals at the top with a Supreme Court covering the entire state below it to hear matters of importance, and County Courts centered in local jurisdictions. Each state has its own system of choosing judges, usually a mix of elections and appointments.
State Courts of Appeal have final say over matters of state law. Their decisions may only be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States if there is a matter of constitutional law involved.
Passing laws Edit
A bill may be introduced by any two legislators in either house. After passing through a series of readings and committees, the bill is then voted on by both houses. If it passes both items, it is passed to the executive, who either signs it or vetoes it. If the bill is vetoed, the veto may be overruled by a supermajority vote of both houses.
Civil law Edit
Private disputes are generally settled under the principles of the common law developed in England, although there are notable difference between American and English law on some points. The state of Louisiana is an exception as private law is based on a variation of the Napoleonic Code.
Criminal Law Edit
Each state and the federal government each have their own criminal statutes, criminal courts, and prosecutors. A prosecutor in the federal system is referred to as a Federal Prosecutor and is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, although most federal prosecutors are civil servants working under a presidential appointee. A prosecutor in the state system is generally called a District Attorney and is usually elected, although the district attorney will generally hire assistants as well.
Under the rule decided in Gideon v. Wainwright, states and the federal government are required to provide free legal defence counsel to indigent defendants if they face prison time. This requirement is met by either a public defender's office or a system of Legal Aid to be paid to private defence counsel.
Legal profession Edit
Lawyers in the United States must hold a Bachelor of Laws or Juris Doctor degree. They must then become admitted in a state bar to practice in that state. Each state has its own admission requirements, but generally requires that the applicant have graduated from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association or that state's bar, and that they pass the state's bar examination. The difficulty of each state's bar exam varies widely. California, New York and Massachusetts are considered to have the most difficult exams.