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JULY 1994


A. Republican Form of Government

The United States of America is a federal republic 
of 50 states, together with a number of 
commonwealths, territories and possessions.  The 
U.S. Constitution is the central instrument of 
government and the supreme law of the land.  Adopted 
in 1789, the Constitution is the world's oldest 
written constitution still in force, and owes its 
staying power to its simplicity and flexibility.  
Originally designed to provide a framework for 
governing four million people in 13 very different 
former British colonies along the Atlantic coast, 
its basic provisions were so soundly conceived that, 
with only 27 amendments, it now serves the needs of 
some 250 million people in 50 even more diverse 
states and other constituent units which stretch 
from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

Although the Constitution has changed in a number of 
respects since it was first adopted, most of its 
basic principles remain the same as they were in 

--    The will of the people forms the basis of 
governmental legitimacy, and the people have the 
right to change their form of national government by 
legal means defined in the Constitution itself.

--    The three main branches of the federal 
government (the executive, legislative, and 
judicial) are separate and distinct from one 
another.  The powers given to each are delicately 
balanced by the powers of the other two.  Each 
branch serves as a check on potential excesses of 
the others.

--    The Constitution stands above all other laws, 
executive acts and regulations, including treaties.

--    All persons are equal before the law and are 
equally entitled to its protection.  All states are 
equal, and none can receive special treatment from 
the federal government.  Within the limits of the 
Constitution, each state must recognize and respect 
the laws of the others.   State governments, like 
the federal government, must be republican in form, 
with final authority resting with the people.

--    Powers not granted to the federal government 
are reserved to the states or the people.

The Constitution and the federal government stand at 
the peak of a governmental pyramid which includes 
the 50 states and many hundreds of local 
jurisdictions.  In the U.S. system, each level of 
government has a large degree of autonomy.  Disputes 
between different jurisdictions are typically 
resolved by the courts.  However, there are 
questions involving the national interest which 
require the cooperation of all levels of government 
simultaneously, and the Constitution makes provision 
for this as well.  By way of example, the public 
(government-funded) schools are largely administered 
by local jurisdictions, adhering to statewide 
standards even at the university level.  Private 
schools are also generally required to meet the same 
standards.  Nevertheless, the federal government 
also aids the schools, as literacy and educational 
attainment are matters of vital national interest.  
In other areas, such as housing, health and welfare, 
there is a similar partnership between the various 
levels of government.

Within the states there are generally two or more 
layers of government.  Most states are divided into 
counties, and areas of population concentration are 
incorporated in municipalities or other forms of 
local government (cities, towns, townships, 
boroughs, parishes or villages).  In addition, 
school districts and special service districts 
provide systems of public education and various 
other services (for example, water and sewer 
services, fire and emergency services, higher 
education, hospital services, public 
transportation).  The leaders of the federal, state, 
county, municipal and other local governments are 
for the most part democratically elected, although 
some are appointed by other officials who are 
themselves democratically elected.  The leaders of 
special service districts are likewise either 
elected or appointed, with election more common in 
the case of school districts.

The federal Constitution establishes a democratic 
system of governance at the federal level and 
guarantees a republican system at the state and 
local  levels.  Elected at the federal level are the 
President, the Vice President, and members of the 
U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.  There is 
considerable variation in the governmental 
structures of the states and of lesser governmental 
units.  From state to state there are large 
differences in the number of officials who are 
elected per unit of government and in the number of 
officials elected per capita.  Elected at the state 
level typically are the governor, a lieutenant 
governor, an attorney general, other leaders of 
state governmental departments, members of a 
bicameral legislature (Nebraska has a unicameral 
legislature).  In many states, justices of the state 
supreme court and judges in various lower courts are 
also elected.  Elected at the county level typically 
are members of a county governing body, a chief 
executive, a sheriff, a clerk, an auditor, a 
coroner, and the like, and minor judicial officials, 
such as justices of the peace and constables.  
Officials elected at the municipal level usually 
include a mayor and members of a governing council, 
board, or commission.  All elections, even those for 
federal office, are conducted by the states or their 
political subdivisions.

Officials at all levels are elected at regularly 
scheduled elections to terms of fixed duration, 
usually varying in length between one and six years.  
Vacancies are filled either through special 
elections or by appointment or by a combination of 
the two methods.  Elections are conducted by secret 

While the Constitution does not establish or 
regulate political parties,  most federal and state 
elections are in fact dominated by two long-
established parties: the Democratic Party, the 
origins of which may be traced to Thomas Jefferson, 
who was President from 1801 to 1809, and the 
Republican Party, founded in 1854.  Each party is a 
loose alliance of private organizations formed at 
the state and local levels which unite every four 
years for the presidential election.  While the 
Democratic Party is generally considered more 
liberal and the Republican Party more conservative 
in terms of ideology, there are no tests for party 
registration and beliefs vary widely across the 
country.  Some Democrats are more conservative than 
most Republicans, and some Republicans are more 
liberal than most Democrats.  Where one party 
dominates the local politics, the only truly 
competitive electoral race may in fact be an 
initial, intra-party election of the party's 
candidate for office. Particularly during a 
presidential election, each party tends to compete 
for voters with a "moderate" or centrist ideology, 
considered to comprise the majority of voters 
nationwide.  Nonetheless, each party has both a 
liberal and a conservative "wing" or group of 

While the United States may generally be said to 
have a "two party" system, many Americans consider 
themselves "independents" or unaffiliated with 
either the Democratic or Republican Party.  
Currently, one independent holds a seat in the U.S. 
Congress and two independents are state governors.  
An independent candidate for President won 18.9 
percent of the popular vote in the 1992 election.

Most elections involve a two-step process.  The 
first (or "primary") step involves the selection or 
designation of a candidate to represent a political 
party; second, the respective parties' candidates 
run against each other and any independent 
candidates in a general election.  Local and state 
party organizations vary widely in the degree to 
which a voter must demonstrate party allegiance 
before participating in the party's nominating 
methods.  Commonly, "primary" elections are held 
among a party's candidates to determine who will be 
the nominee of that party for office.  Other methods 
include party caucuses and conventions.  Primary 
elections usually require a voter to demonstrate at 
least a minimal commitment to a particular party; 
however, the voter may not be required to register 
as a member of the party before voting in that 
party's primary.  On the other hand, party caucuses 
and conventions typically require a greater degree 
of party affiliation by the voter and may be open 
only to certain party officials.  Once the parties 
have designated their candidates for office, state-
run general elections are held.  In almost all 
elections, voters are permitted to "split" their 
ballots by, for example, voting for a Democrat for 
President and a Republican for Senator.  The result 
is that at both the federal and state levels, the 
individual holding the highest executive office 
(e.g., President or Governor) may be of a different 
political party from the majority of elected 
representatives in the legislative branch.

B. Federal Government

The federal government consists of three branches: 
the executive, the legislative and the judicial.

The Executive Branch.   The executive branch of 
government is headed by the President, who under the 
Constitution must be a natural born U.S. citizen, at 
least 35 years old, and a resident of the country 
for at least 14 years.  Candidates for the 
presidency are chosen by political parties several 
months before the presidential election, which is 
held every four years (in years divisible evenly by 
four) on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in 

The method of electing the President is peculiar to 
the U.S. system.  Although the names of the 
candidates appear on the ballots, technically the 
people of each state do not vote directly for the 
President and Vice President.  Instead, they select 
a slate of "presidential electors," equal to the 
number of Senators and Representatives each state 
has in Congress.  The candidate with the highest 
number of votes in each state wins all the electoral 
votes of that state.

According to the Constitution, the President must 
"take care that the laws be faithfully executed."  
To carry out this responsibility, the President  
presides over the executive branch of government, 
with broad powers to manage national affairs and the 
workings of the federal government.  When authorized 
by statute, the President can issue rules, 
regulations and instructions called executive 
orders, which are binding upon federal agencies.  As 
commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United 
States, the President may also call into federal 
service the state units of the National Guard.  The 
Congress may by law grant the President or federal 
agencies broad powers to make rules and regulations 
under standards set in those laws.  In time of war 
or national emergency, these grants may be broader 
than in peacetime.

The President chooses the heads of all executive 
departments and agencies, together with hundreds of 
other high ranking federal officials.  The large 
majority of federal workers, however, are selected 
through the Civil Service system, in which 
appointment and promotion are based on ability and 
experience rather than political affiliation.

Under the Constitution, the President is the federal 
official primarily responsible for the relations of 
the United States with foreign nations.  In this 
sense the President is both "head of government" and 
"head of state."  Presidents appoint ambassadors, 
ministers and consuls, subject to confirmation by 
the Senate, and receive foreign ambassadors and 
other public officials.  With the Secretary of 
State, the President manages all official 
communication with foreign governments.  On 
occasion, the President may personally participate 
in summit conferences where heads of government meet 
for direct consultation.  

Through the Department of State, the President is 
responsible for the protection of U.S. citizens 
abroad.  Presidents decide whether to recognize new 
nations and new governments, and negotiate treaties 
with other nations, which are binding on the United 
States when approved by two-thirds of the Senators 
present and voting.  The President may also 
negotiate executive agreements with foreign powers 
that are not subject to Senate advice and consent, 
based on statutory authority as well as inherent 
constitutional powers.

Although the Constitution provides that "all 
legislative powers" shall be vested in the Congress, 
the President, as the chief formulator of public 
policy, also has a major role in the legislative 
process.  The President can veto any bill passed by 
Congress, and, unless two-thirds in each house vote 
to override the veto, the bill does not become law.  
Much of the legislation dealt with by Congress is 
drafted at the initiative of the executive branch.  
In his annual report (the "State of the Union" 
address) and in other special messages to Congress, 
the President may propose legislation he believes is 
necessary.  The President has the power to call the 
Congress into special session.  Furthermore, the 
President, as head of a political party and as chief 
executive officer of the United States Government, 
is in a position to influence public opinion and 
thereby to influence the course of legislation in 

The President also nominates federal judges, 
including Justices of the Supreme Court of the 
United States, subject to the advice and consent of 
the Senate.  The President has the power to grant a 
full or conditional pardon to anyone convicted of 
breaking a federal law, except in a case of 
impeachment.  The pardoning power has come to 
embrace the authority to shorten prison terms and 
reduce fines.

The day-to-day enforcement and administration of 
federal laws is in the hands of the various 
executive departments created by Congress to deal 
with specific areas of national and international 
affairs.  The heads of the departments, chosen by 
the President and approved by the Senate, form a 
council of advisers generally known as the 
President's Cabinet.  The Cabinet is an informal 
consultative and advisory body, not provided for by 
the Constitution.  Currently, the members of the 
Cabinet include the secretaries of the Departments 
of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, 
Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban 
Development, Interior, Labor, State, Transportation, 
Treasury, and Veterans Affairs, as well as the 
Attorney General, who heads the Justice Department.  
Some executive departments include major subordinate 
agencies, such as the U.S. Coast Guard and the 
Federal Aviation Administration (the Department of 
Transportation), the Federal Bureau of Investigation 
(the Department of Justice), and the Bureau of 
Indian Affairs and the National Park Service (the 
Department of the Interior).

In addition to the secretaries of the fourteen 
executive departments, the chiefs of a number of 
other governmental organizations are also considered 
part of the Cabinet.  Currently, these include the 
chiefs of the White House staff, the National 
Security Council, the Office of Management and 
Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Office 
of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Environmental 
Protection Agency, Drug Control Policy, Domestic 
Policy Council, the National Economic Council, and 
the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.  The 
Office of the President includes certain other 
organizations such as the Office of Science and 
Technology and the Office of Environmental Policy.

In addition to the executive departments, more than 
50 other agencies within the executive branch have 
important responsibilities for keeping the 
government and the economy working.  These are often 
called independent agencies, as they are technically 
not part of the executive departments.  Some are 
regulatory groups, with powers to supervise certain 
sectors of the economy, such as the Securities and 
Exchange Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory 
Commission and the Interstate Commerce Commission.  
Others provide special services, either to the 
government or to people, such as the U.S. Postal 
Service, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the 
Federal Election Commission.  In most cases, the 
agencies have been created by Congress to deal with 
matters that have become too complex for the scope 
of ordinary legislation.  Among the best known 
independent agencies are the Peace Corps and the 
National Aeronautics and Space Administration 

All together, the executive branch currently employs 
approximately 3 million civilian personnel.

The Department of Defense is responsible for 
providing the military forces required to deter war 
and protect the security of the United States.  The 
major elements of these forces include the Army, 
Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, consisting in 
September 1993 of approximately 1.7 million active 
duty personnel.  Women make up 11 percent of the 
armed forces, but fewer than 1 percent serve in the 
infantry, in gun crews or aboard ship.  Under the 
authority of the President, the Secretary of Defense 
exercises civilian authority, direction and control 
over the Department of Defense, which includes the 
separately organized departments of Army, Navy and 
Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the unified 
and specified combatant commands, and various 
subordinate agencies established for specific 

The Legislative Branch.  The legislative branch of 
the federal government is the Congress, which has 
two houses: the Senate and the House of 
Representatives.  Powers granted Congress under the 
Constitution include the powers to levy taxes, 
borrow money, regulate interstate commerce, declare 
war, discipline its own membership, and determine 
its rules of procedure.  Including related entities 
such as the Library of Congress, the General 
Accounting Office, the Government Printing Office 
and the Congressional Budget Office, the legislative 
branch employs some 38,000 people.            The 
Senate.  Each state elects two senators.  Senators 
must be at least 30 years old, residents of the 
state from which they are elected, and citizens of 
the United States for at least nine years.  Each 
term of service is for six years, and terms are 
arranged so that one-third of the members are 
elected every two years.

The Senate has certain powers especially reserved to 
that body, including the authority to confirm 
presidential appointments of high officials and 
ambassadors of the federal government, as well as 
authority to give its advice and consent to the 
ratification of treaties by a two-thirds vote.

The Constitution provides that the Vice President of 
the United States shall be president of the Senate.  
The Vice President has no vote, except in the case 
of a tie.  The Senate chooses a president pro 
tempore from the majority party to preside when the 
Vice President is absent.  

The House of Representatives.  The 435 members of 
the House of Representatives are chosen by direct 
vote of the electorate in each state, with the 
number of representatives allotted to each state on 
the basis of population.  Each representative 
represents a single congressional district.  Members 
must be at least 25 years old, residents of the 
states from which they are elected, and previously 
citizens of the United States for at least seven 
years.  They serve for a two year period.

The House of Representatives chooses its own 
presiding officer, the Speaker of the House.  The 
Speaker is always a member of the political party 
with the majority in the House.

The leaders of the two political parties in each 
house of Congress are respectively the majority 
floor leader and the minority floor leader; they are 
helped by party whips who maintain communication 
between the leadership and the members of the House.  
Legislative proposals (termed "bills" prior to 
enactment as "statutes") introduced by members in 
the House of Representatives are received by the 
standing committees which can amend, expedite, 
delay, or kill the bills.  The committee chairmen 
attain their positions on the basis of seniority.  
Among the most important House committees are those 
on Appropriations, Foreign Affairs, Ways and Means, 
and Rules.

Each house of Congress has the power to introduce 
legislation on any subject, except that revenue 
bills must originate in the House of 
Representatives.  Each house can vote against 
legislation passed by the other house.  Often, a 
conference committee made up of members from both 
houses must work out a compromise acceptable to both 
houses before a bill becomes law. 

The Role of Committees.  One of the major 
characteristics of the Congress is the dominant role 
committees play in its proceedings.  Committees have 
assumed their present day importance by evolution, 
not design, as the Constitution makes no provision 
for their establishment.  At present, the Senate has 
16 standing committees; the House of Representatives 
has 22.  The Houses share a number of joint 
committees, such as the Joint Committee on Taxation, 
and each also has a number of special and select 
committees.  Each specializes in specific areas of 
legislation and governmental activity, such as 
foreign affairs, defense, banking, agriculture, 
commerce, appropriations and other fields.  Every 
bill introduced in either house is referred to a 
committee for study and recommendation.  The 
committee may approve, revise, reject or ignore any 
measure referred to it.  It is nearly impossible for 
a bill to reach the House or Senate floor without 
first winning committee approval.  In the House, a 
petition to discharge a bill from committee requires 
the signatures of 218 members; in the Senate, a 
majority of all members is required.  In practice, 
such discharge motions rarely receive the required 

The majority party in each house controls the 
committee process.  Committee chairs are selected by 
a caucus of members of the majority party in that 
house or by specially designated groups of members.  
Minority parties are proportionately represented in 
the committees according to their strength in each 

Bills are developed by a variety of methods.  Some 
are drawn up by standing committees, some by special 
committees created to deal with specific legislative 
issues, and some are suggested by the President or 
other executive branch officers.  Citizens and 
organizations outside the Congress may suggest 
legislation to members, and individual members 
themselves may initiate bills.  Each bill must be 
sponsored by at least one member of the house in 
which it is introduced.  After introduction, bills 
are sent to designated committees which may schedule 
a series of public hearings to permit presentation 
of views by persons who support or oppose the 
legislation.  The hearing process, which can last 
several weeks or months, opens the legislative 
process to public participation.

When a committee has acted favorably on a bill, the 
proposed legislation may then be brought to the 
floor for open debate.  In the Senate, the rules 
permit virtually unlimited debate.  In the House, 
because of the large number of members, the Rules 
Committee usually sets limits.  When debate is 
ended, members vote to approve the bill, defeat it, 
table it (set it aside), or return it to committee.  
A bill passed by one house is sent to the other for 
action.  If the bill is amended by the second house, 
the bill may return to the first house for another 
vote, or a conference committee composed of members 
of both houses may attempt to reconcile the 

Once passed by both houses, the bill is sent to the 
President, who must act on the bill for it to become 
law.  The President generally has the option of 
signing the bill, in which case it becomes law, or 
vetoing it.  A bill vetoed by the President must be 
reapproved by a two-thirds vote of both houses in 
order to become law.  If the President refuses 
either to sign or veto a bill, it becomes law 
without his signature 10 days after it reaches him 
(not including Sundays).  The single exception to 
this rule is when Congress adjourns after sending a 
bill to the President and before the 10-day period 
has expired; the President's  refusal to take any 
action then negates the  bill -- a process known as 
the "pocket veto."

Congressional Powers of Oversight and Investigation.  
Among the most important functions of the Congress 
are oversight and investigation.  Oversight 
functions include reviewing the effectiveness of 
laws already passed and assessing their 
implementation by the executive branch, as well as 
inquiring into the qualifications and performance of 
members and officials of the other branches.  In 
addition, investigations are conducted to gather 
information on the need for future legislation.  
Frequently, committees call on outside 
(nongovernmental) experts to assist in conducting 
investigative hearings and to make detailed studies 
of issues.

There are important corollaries to the powers of 
oversight and investigation.  One is the power to 
publicize the proceedings and their results.  Most 
committee hearings are open to the public and are 
widely reported in the mass media.  Congressional 
hearings thus represent one important tool available 
to lawmakers to inform the citizenry and arouse 
public interest in national issues.  A second power 
is to compel testimony from unwilling witnesses and 
to cite for contempt of Congress witnesses who 
refuse to testify, and for perjury those who give 
false testimony.

The Judicial Branch.  The third branch of the 
federal government, the judiciary, consists of a 
system of courts headed by the Supreme Court of the 
United States and including subordinate courts 
throughout the country.  The federal judicial power 
includes cases arising under the Constitution, laws, 
and treaties of the United States; admiralty and 
maritime cases; cases affecting ambassadors, 
ministers and consuls of foreign countries in the 
United States; controversies in which the U.S. 
Government is a party; and controversies between 
states (or their citizens) and foreign nations (or 
their citizens and subjects).  In practice the vast 
majority of litigation in federal courts is based on 
federal law or involves disputes between citizens of 
different states under the courts' "diversity" 

The power of the federal courts extends both to 
civil actions for money damages and other forms of 
redress, and to criminal cases arising under federal 
law.  Article III of the Constitution establishes 
the Supreme Court of the United States and gives 
Congress the power to establish other federal courts 
as needed.  Under Article I, Congress also has the 
power to establish courts; Article I courts include 
territorial courts, certain District of Columbia 
courts, courts martial, and legislative courts and 
administrative agency adjudicative procedures.

The Constitution safeguards judicial independence by 
providing that federal judges shall hold office 
"during good behavior" - in practice, until they 
die, retire, or resign, although a judge who commits 
an offense while in office may be impeached in the 
same way as the President or other officials of the 
federal government.  Federal judges are appointed by 
the President and confirmed by the Senate.  
Altogether, there are approximately 1,000 federal 
judges, and the federal judiciary employs some 
28,000 people.

The Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court is the highest 
court of the United States and the only one 
specifically created by the Constitution.  A 
decision of the Supreme Court cannot be appealed to 
any other court.  Congress has the power to fix the 
number of judges sitting on the Court (currently a 
Chief Justice and 8 Associate Justices) and, within 
limits, to decide what kind of cases it may hear, 
but it cannot change the powers given to the Supreme 
Court by the Constitution itself.

The Supreme Court has original jurisdiction (i.e., 
the authority to hear cases directly rather than on 
appeal) in only two kinds of cases: those involving 
foreign dignitaries, and those in which a state is a 
party.  All other cases reach the Supreme Court on 
appeal from lower federal courts or from the various 
state courts.  The right of appeal is not automatic 
in all cases, however, and the Supreme Court 
exercises considerable discretion in selecting the 
cases it will consider.  A significant amount of the 
work of the Supreme Court consists of determining 
whether legislation or executive acts conform to the 
Constitution.  This power of judicial review is not 
expressly provided for by the Constitution.  Rather, 
it is a doctrine inferred by the Court from its 
reading of the Constitution, and stated in the 
landmark case of Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 
Cranch) 137 (1803).  In that case, the Court held 
that "a legislative act contrary to the Constitution 
is not law," and observed that "it is emphatically 
the province and duty of the judicial department to 
say what the law is."  The doctrine of judicial 
review also covers the activities of state and local 

Decisions of the Court need not be unanimous; a 
simple majority prevails, provided at least six 
Justices participate in the decision.  In split 
decisions, the Court usually issues both a majority 
and a minority or dissenting opinion, both of which 
may form the basis for future decisions by the 
Court.  Often Justices will write separate 
concurring opinions when they agree with a decision, 
but for reasons other than those given by the 

Courts of Appeals and District Courts.  The second 
highest level of the federal judiciary is made up of 
the Courts of Appeals.  The United States is 
currently divided into 12 appellate circuits, each 
served by a Court of Appeals.  The Courts of Appeals 
have appellate jurisdiction over decisions of the 
District Courts (trial courts with federal 
jurisdiction) within their respective geographic 
areas.  They are also empowered to review orders of 
the independent regulatory agencies, such as the 
Federal Trade Commission, in cases where the 
internal review mechanisms of the agencies have been 
exhausted and there still exists substantial 
disagreement over legal issues.  There is also a 
thirteenth Court of Appeals, which hears appeals 
from certain courts with specialized jurisdiction.  
Approximately 180 judges sit on the various Courts 
of Appeals.

Below the Courts of Appeals are the federal District 
Courts.  The 50 states are divided into 89 districts 
so that litigants may have a trial within easy 
reach.  Additionally, there are District Courts in 
the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto 
Rico, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, and 
the territories of Guam and the Virgin Islands.  
Congress fixes the boundaries of the districts 
according to population, size, and volume of work.  
Some states (such as Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho and 
Vermont) constitute a district by themselves, while 
the larger states (such as New York, California and 
Texas) have four districts each.  In total, there 
are approximately 650 federal district judges.

Courts with Specialized Jurisdiction.  In addition 
to the federal courts of general jurisdiction, it 
has been necessary from time to time to set up 
courts for special purposes.  Perhaps the most 
important of these special courts is the U.S. Court 
of Federal Claims, established in 1855 to render 
judgment on monetary claims against the United 
States.  Other special courts include U.S. Tax 
Court, the Court of Veterans Appeals, and the Court 
of International Trade, which has exclusive 
jurisdiction over civil actions involving taxes or 
quotas on imported goods.

Military Courts.  A separate system exists for 
military justice.  Members of the military are 
subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice for 
disciplinary matters.  Cases of alleged criminal 
conduct are investigated, and when substantiated are 
resolved, in appropriate fora ranging from 
nonjudicial punishment to one of three types of 
courts-martial.  In a trial by court-martial, an 
accused is accorded the full range of constitutional 
rights, including representation by a qualified 
defense counsel at no charge to the individual.  Any 
court-martial that results in a sentence of 
confinement for a year or more, discharge from the 
service or capital punishment is automatically 
reviewed by the relevant Court of Military Review 
for the concerned service.  Those courts, which are 
composed of senior military (and sometimes civilian) 
attorneys serving as judges, examine the records of 
trial for both factual and legal error.  Decisions 
can be appealed to the Court of Military Appeals, on 
which 5 civilian judges sit.  Adverse decisions can 
be further reviewed by the Supreme Court of the 
United States on a discretionary basis.

Relationship between Federal and State Courts.  Over 
the course of the nation's history, a complex set of 
relationships between state and federal courts has 
arisen.  Ordinarily, federal courts do not hear 
cases arising under the laws of individual states.  
However, some cases over which federal courts have 
jurisdiction may also be heard and decided by state 
courts.  Both court systems thus have exclusive 
jurisdiction in some areas and concurrent 
jurisdiction in others.  Taking into account that 
there are 50 separate state court systems, which 
often include subordinate judicial bodies (e.g., 
county and city courts), as well as the judicial 
systems of the insular areas, the District of 
Columbia and other nonstate entities, there are over 
2000 courts with general jurisdiction and 
approximately 18,000 judicial districts of either 
general or limited jurisdiction in the United 
States.  Many states have large numbers of courts 
with very limited jurisdiction, such as New York 
(which has 2300 town and village justice courts) and 
Texas (which has approximately 850 municipal courts 
and 920 justice of the peace courts).

C. The State Governments

The governments of the 50 states have structures 
closely paralleling those of the federal government, 
each with a constitution and executive, legislative, 
and judicial branches.  The state governor acts as 
the head of the executive, but not all states bestow 
the same amount of power upon their governors; some 
are quite powerful, others less so.  All state 
legislatures have two houses, except Nebraska's, 
which is unicameral.  The size of state legislatures 
varies widely; the largest include those in New 
Hampshire (424 representatives), Pennsylvania (253), 
and Georgia (236), while the smallest are found in 
Nebraska (49) and Alaska (60).  Most state judicial 
systems mirror the federal system, with lower trial 
courts, appellate courts, and a court of last 
resort.  States and insular areas divide relatively 
evenly among those that elect their judges (22), 
those that appoint judges (16 including the District 
of Columbia and four of the insular areas), and 
those where judges are initially appointed and 
subsequently run on a retention ballot (18 including 

The power of state government is vast.  Essentially, 
each state is a sovereign entity, free to promulgate 
and enforce policy and law that pertains exclusively 
to that state, limited under the Constitution only 
to the extent that the relevant authority has been 
delegated to the federal government.  The power of a 
state and its cities and localities to regulate its 
own general welfare has traditionally been termed 
the "police power."  Besides enforcement of criminal 
laws, the police power encompasses agriculture and 
conservation, highway and motor vehicle supervision, 
public safety and correction, professional 
licensing, regulation of intrastate business and 
industry, and broad aspects of education, public 
health, and welfare.  The interpretation of a 
state's constitution falls exclusively within the 
domain of that state's own court system.  Only where 
there is direct conflict with federal law or the 
federal Constitution, or where the federal 
government has "preempted" the field, can state law 
be overridden or invalidated.  The retention of most 
aspects of governmental authority at the state and 
local level generally serves to keep that authority 
in the hands of the people.

Distribution of authority as between the states and 
the federal government has historically been among 
the most basic dynamics of the federal system.  
Although the powers of Congress are limited, and 
those powers not expressly delegated to the federal 
government are reserved to the states or to the 
people, the 20th century has seen increasingly broad 
judicial interpretation of the national legislative 
power.  Today there is an abundance of federal 
legislation, touching on many areas which 100 years 
ago would have been exclusively considered a state 
concern.  One beneficial result of this expansion of 
federal authority, especially in the latter half of 
this century, has been the increased protection of 
individual rights and freedoms, especially in the 
area of civil and political rights.

D.  Other Governmental Levels

A significant number of U.S. citizens and/or 
nationals live in areas outside the 50 states and 
yet within the political framework and jurisdiction 
of the United States.  They include people living in 
the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Puerto 
Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern 
Marianas, and the remaining islands of the Trust 
Territory of the Pacific.  The governmental 
framework in each is largely determined by the 
area's historical relationship to the United States 
and the will of its residents.

The District of Columbia was established at the 
founding of the Republic to serve as the home of the 
Nation's Capital outside of any state.  In 1783 the 
Continental Congress voted to establish a federal 
city; the specific site was chosen by President 
George Washington in 1790.  Congress moved to the 
District from Philadelphia in 1800, and the District 
remains the seat of the federal government today.  
Originally, Maryland and Virginia donated land for 
the District.  The land donated by Virginia was 
given back in 1845 and the District now covers 179.2 
sq. km located on the west central edge of Maryland, 
along the eastern bank of the Potomac River.  
Residents of the District, numbering some 600,000, 
are U.S. citizens and have been entitled to vote in 
presidential elections since 1964.  Residents elect 
a delegate to the U.S. Congress as well as a mayor 
and a city council with authority to levy its own 
taxes.  The U.S. Congress retains final authority in 
a number of important areas, including the 
District's laws and budget.  Whether the District 
should be admitted to statehood remains an issue of 
active public debate.

American Samoa is an unincorporated territory of the 
United States, acquired in 1900 and 1904 through 
Deeds of Cession executed by its Chiefs, and 
ratified by Congress in 1929.  Residents are U.S. 
nationals who do not vote in federal elections; they 
are however represented by an elected nonvoting 
delegate in the House of Representatives.  
Fundamental rights are guaranteed by both the U.S. 
Constitution and the territorial constitution.  
American Samoa is under the general administrative 
supervision of the Department of the Interior; 
nonetheless, American Samoa has been self-governing 
since 1978, with an elected governor and lieutenant 
governor and bicameral legislature (Senate and House 
of Representatives).  American Samoa also has its 
own high court and five district courts.

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1899 and 
is currently a self- governing commonwealth freely 
associated with the United States.  Puerto Ricans 
have been citizens of the United States since 1917; 
however, they cannot vote in presidential elections.  
Residents elect the Commonwealth's "resident 
commissioner" to the U.S. House of Representatives.  
Puerto Rico has a popularly- elected chief executive 
(governor), a bicameral legislature, and a judicial 
branch consisting of a Supreme Court and lesser 
courts.  There is also a federal District Court.  
The federal government conducts foreign relations 
for Puerto Rico and has responsibility for defense, 
the post office, customs, and certain agricultural 
activities.  The future relationship of Puerto Rico 
and the United States continues to be a matter of 
vigorous public debate.  Most recently, in November 
1993, through a nonbinding plebiscite, the citizens 
of Puerto Rico chose to retain the commonwealth 
arrangement, although nearly as much support was 
voiced for statehood.  By comparison, a small 
minority of approximately 5 percent sought 

The U.S. Virgin Islands are an unincorporated 
territory of the United States.  They were acquired 
from Denmark in 1917; residents are U.S. citizens 
who do not vote in federal elections.  Since 1973, 
they have been represented by an elected delegate in 
the House of Representatives.  Residents elect their 
chief executives, the governor and lieutenant 
governor, as well as the 15 members of their 
unicameral legislature.  There is a federal judicial 
district for the U.S. Virgin Islands, whose judge is 
appointed by the U.S. President.

Guam is an unincorporated territory of the United 
States, acquired by the United States in 1899 after 
the Spanish-American War and administered by the 
Navy until 1950.  Residents of Guam are U.S. 
citizens who do not vote in federal elections; since 
1972, they have been represented by a delegate in 
the House of Representatives.  The territory is 
under the general administrative supervision of the 
Department of the Interior.  The residents elect 
their own governor, lieutenant governor, and 
unicameral legislature.  The district court of Guam 
operates within jurisdiction very similar to a U.S. 
district court.

The Northern Marianas are a self-governing 
commonwealth in political union with the United 
States.  Formerly part of the Trust Territory of the 
Pacific Islands assigned to the United States by the 
U.N. in 1947, the Northern Marianas became self-
governing in 1976.  Residents are U.S. citizens.  
They do not participate in federal elections but do 
vote for their popularly-elected governor, 
lieutenant governor, and bicameral legislature.  
Residents maintain control over domestic affairs; 
the U.S. Government provides for defense and foreign 
affairs.  The Northern Marianas adopted this 
governmental form in a United Nations referendum in 

Two other areas formerly encompassed within the 
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands include the 
Federated States of Micronesia, a federation 
including Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap, and the 
Republic of the Marshall Islands.  Both are now 
independent, sovereign nations in free association 
with the United States.  The sole remaining entity 
of the Trust Territory is the Republic of Palau, 
consisting of 200 islands in the Caroline Island 
chain. The majority of the population of 15,000 
lives on the main island of Koror. Palau has been 
self-governing since the adoption of its 
constitution in 1980. In November 1993 the citizens 
of Palau ratified a compact of free association 
negotiated with the United States in 1986, which 
should soon lead to the termination of the 
Trusteeship and independence for Palau.

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