Branches of Government

The term “branches of government” refers to the separate arms of the U.S. government, each of which having its own powers. For example, branches of government include the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. There is also a system in place called “checks and balances,” which ensures that no one branch becomes too powerful. To explore this concept, consider the following branches of government definition.

Definition of Branches of Government


  1. The division of the U.S. government into three separate branches: the legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch.


1787     U.S. Constitution

What are the Branches of Government?

The meaning of “branches of government” refers to the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the U.S. government. Each of the branches has its own powers.

For example, branches of government have the power to make laws (legislative branch), enforce laws (executive branch), and apply those laws to applicable situations (judicial branch). There also exists the system of checks and balances, which works to ensure that no branch becomes more powerful than the other two branches.

Separation of Powers

Separation of powers originates in the idea that, for a government to effectively secure the freedom of its people, the government must separate into three distinct branches acting independently of one another. Put another way, separation of powers refers to the division of the government into separate branches to prevent any one branch from becoming so controlling that it performs functions the other branches should be performing. Separation of powers prevents power from becoming concentrated, and paves the way for ensuring fairness for the people.

Checks and Balances

The system of checks and balances exists because the powers and responsibilities of the government are too complicated to sort neatly among the branches. As such, it is only natural for conflict to exist among the branches. Checks and balances exist to ease the conflict by allowing each branch of government to have a say in, or supervision over, what the other branches do.

One of the branches of government examples of “checking” another branch of government lies in the power of the President to veto a law that Congress has passed. This results in the President’s “check” on the legislative branch. However, Congress can then, with a majority vote, override a Presidential veto. This is another of those branches of government examples of checks and balances because here, the legislative branch is “checking” the executive branch.

Three Branches of Government

The three branches of government as it exists in the U.S. are the legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch. Each branch has its own delegated responsibilities, and each branch has the power to “check” another branch if the latter attempts to overstep its authority.

Executive Branch

The executive branch is responsible for enforcing the laws passed by the legislative branch. The executive branch consists of the President, the Vice President, and the Presidential Cabinet, along with several other federal agencies and committees.

In addition to signing bills into law, or rejecting (vetoing) them, the President also has the power to influence current laws by way of executive orders and proclamations. The executive branch is also in charge of maintaining relations with foreign nations.

Presidential Cabinet

The role of the Presidential Cabinet is to advise the President on any topic that comes up that he must then delegate to the appropriate member of the Cabinet. In addition to the Vice President, the Presidential Cabinet consists of the heads of 15 different departments within the executive branch. Among these departments is the Attorney General, along with the Secretaries of departments ranging from agriculture and defense to education and homeland security.

Legislative Branch

The legislative branch is responsible for making and passing the country’s laws and for funding the U.S. government. Because this is a pretty heavy power for a branch of government to have, the legislative branch divides further, separating Congress into two branches of its own: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Once the majority passes a bill, it heads to the President who can either sign it into law or veto it. If he vetoes it, it kicks back to Congress, who may override his veto and pass the bill anyway.

Judicial Branch

The judicial branch interprets the Constitution and the country’s laws, then applies those interpretations to the cases brought before it. Essentially, the judicial branch consists of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. – the highest court in the land. The President nominates justices for the judicial branch, and the Senate confirms his choices. Once the Senate confirms a federal judge, he or she holds that position until they either die, retire, or Congress has reason to impeach them.

Examples of Branches of Government “Checks”

When it comes to checks and balances, there are several branches of government examples of “checks” that each of the branches performs on each other. For instance, some of these “checks” include:

  • The power to override a veto (legislative branch)
  • The power to approve or reject a Presidential nominee (legislative branch)
  • The power to veto a bill to stop it from becoming law (executive branch)
  • The power to call a session of Congress when Congress is not meeting (executive branch)
  • The power to deny the reduction of a judge’s salary while he’s in office (judicial branch)
  • The power to declare a bill unconstitutional (judicial branch)

Of course, this is only a sampling of the types of checks each branch can exert over the others. The legislative branch has the most amount of “checks” available to any one branch, with the judicial branch having the least.

Branches of Government Example Involving Osama bin Laden

An example of the branches of government coming before the U.S. Supreme Court is the matter of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006). Here, Salim Hamdan lived in Yemen and worked as Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and chauffeur. In 2001, a militia captured Hamdan and turned him over to the U.S. In 2002, the U.S. sent Hamdan to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Writ of Habeas Corpus

In 2004, the U.S. charged Hamdan with conspiracy to commit terrorism. Hamdan then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court against his detention. Before the district court could rule on his petition, however, a military tribunal declared Hamdan to be an enemy combatant. Months later, the district court granted his petition, but ruled that he must first undergo a hearing to determine whether he was a prisoner of war (POW). Only after a hearing could a military commission then try him further.

The Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the district court, finding that a federal court could not enforce the Geneva Convention. Further, the Court held that, because Congress had authorized the military tribunals, they were not unconstitutional.

U.S. Supreme Court

When the matter reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court had two issues to decide. First, they needed to decide whether a federal court could enforce the Geneva Convention by way of habeas corpus petitions. Second, they needed to decide whether Congress truly authorized the military commission set up to try Hamdan, or if the President himself called it.

Ultimately, the Court ruled, in a 5-3 decision, “yes” to the first issue, and “no” to the second. Because Hamdan was not privy to certain parts of his own trial, the Court held that the military commission violated both the Geneva Convention and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and was therefore illegal. Said the Court, in its own words:

“The District Court granted habeas relief and stayed the commission’s proceedings, concluding that the President’s authority to establish military commissions extends only to offenders or offenses triable by such a commission under the law of war; that such law includes the Third Geneva Convention; that Hamdan is entitled to that Convention’s full protections until adjudged, under it, not to be a prisoner of war; and that, whether or not Hamdan is properly classified a prisoner of war, the commission convened to try him was established in violation of both the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), 10 U. S. C. §801 et seq., and Common Article 3 of the Third Geneva Convention because it had the power to convict based on evidence the accused would never see or hear.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
  • Homeland Security – A department of the President’s Cabinet responsible for protecting American citizens as a whole.
  • Petitioner – The individual who initiates legal proceedings by filing a petition, also referred to as “plaintiff” in some cases.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to rule in a civil matter.
  • Veto – To vote against a decision or proposal made by a legislature.
  • Writ of Habeas Corpus – A motion used to bring a detainee, such as a prisoner, before the court to determine if the detention is legal.