Constitution structure determines government structure.

Almost all governments at almost all levels in the United States (federal, state and city; counties and regional excluded) have three branches, the executive, the legislative and the judicial.  Constitutions outline the powers and limits of each branch.

  • The executive branch includes mayors, governors and the president of the United States.  It is the branch that signs laws into effect and enforces those laws. It may veto or refuse to sign laws the legislature passes.  It may also disagree with a court ruling on the legitimacy of a law.  Traditionally, the executive branch has had “the bully pulpit” or the ability to appeal directly to a population with one voice.  It has no judicial or law making power, but it can issue executive orders that have the power of law over the function of its own branch for a limited time.  The executive branch at all levels of government is the branch with the police, the military, paramilitary and other protection (FTC), enforcement (BOP) and investigative agencies (FBI), etc.  

  • The legislative branch is the law making branch and it usually consists of a Senate and a House of Representatives.  It may be called Congess, the general assembly or the city council.  The legislature is considered to be closest to the people and their will because people elect legislators and expect them, as their representatives, to do what they want.  But legislators may create and pass laws that some people who elected them do not want.  Citizen referendums may challenge laws the legislature passes and force those challenges onto the ballot so the people can vote to change those laws. The legislature has no judicial or law enforcement power but it can enact laws the executive refuses to enact by overriding executive vetoes, thus forcing the executive to enforce them.  It can establish legislative review committees which can rule on the conduct of individuals in or out of government. The legislature also controls the government budget.

  • The judiciary is the branch that decides if laws are legal. Courts operate mostly on their “moral authority” and are guided by past judicial decisions or “jurisprudence”.  The judiciary has no law making or law enforcement power.  If courts rule on a law in a way that looks more like law making, executive and legislative branches may accuse it of trespassing into branches of government it does not belong (judicial activism). But it may declare a law enacted by the legislature and enforced by the executive branch unconstitutional or in conflict with existing law and send it back to the legislature to change or repeal it.  If the executive or legislative branches disagree with a court ruling, the argument over the law may move to a higher court.  Or a higher court may decline to decide on a law, allowing the ruling of a lower court to remain in effect.  A court case may eventually reach state or federal Supreme Court. Once the Supreme Court decides, that is the end of the judicial journey for that law unless or until a different challenge to it arises later.   Most courts have an uneven number of judges to prevent deadlocks.

State and federal constitutions are similar …

State constitutions and the US Constitution, share common elements:

  • Preamble - A preamble is the philosophical statement that explains and justifies the reasons for the state coming into existence.  It identifies the highest purpose or motivation of the state and what it intends to do for its people.  A constitution has one preamble.  Several state constitutions do not have a preamble.

  • Bill of Rights - Many state constitutions, like the US Constitution, explains a set of basic human rights that should not be infringed upon by government.  This list of specific individual rights is usually referred to as its bill or rights and is often the first article or set of amendments of a constitution.  

  • Articles - These identify a major branch or function of government.  For example, the executive, judiciary and legislative branches have their own articles in a constitution because they are major aspects of government.  

  • Amendments - These are, from oldest to newest, formal changes to the constitution.  

  • Annotations - Many state constitutions will have notes at the end of specific articles or amendments that explains how different incidents relate to and help interpret those articles or amendments.  They may include references to law journals, the results of special legislative sessions or prior court decisions.  

Constitution Basics

And different …

Structure, history and content make state constitutions stand apart from the national document