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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in the United States Of America

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2013

Government and Politics

The United States of America is a federal republic: it has both federal and state levels of government. The federal government has overall control of the country and power in particular areas. It is comprised of clearly divided executive, legislative and judicial branches. These were originally set up to ensure that there were checks and balances in place to prevent any of the three elements from gaining too much power. The 50 states have the power to affect most areas of legislation and therefore have a considerable degree of autonomy.

The head of the executive, and head of state, is the president, currently Barack Obama. The president executes federal laws, appoints various senior political and diplomatic officers, and debates and signs foreign treaties. All these actions require the consent of the Senate to be effected. The president is also instrumental in deciding which laws his party will promulgate in the legislative. Besides these and other powers, the president can be seen as a kind of political and moral leader of the nation.

The presidential election is held every leap year; the last one was in 2012. The president may stand for re-election once, but must stand down after completing his second term. Election of the president is not by simple majority, but according to the Electoral College system. There are a total of 538 votes in the Electoral College. Each state gains a number of votes determined by its population.  The lowest amount is 3 votes (seven states plus the District of Columbia) and the highest is 55 (California). Whichever candidate gains the most votes in a state gains all the Electoral College votes in that state.

The US legislative is bicameral. The lower house, the House of Representatives, contains 435 members, called congressmen or congresswomen. They are drawn from each state according to its population in a similar manner to the Electoral College system. The upper house is the Senate; this contains 100 senators, two from each state.) Together the two houses of Congress debate and vote on legislation that has generally been proposed by the president.

State government structure mimics the federal system. Each State has its own executive and legislative. The executive is headed by a governor, who resides in the state capital. Each state also has its own constitution, which varies to a greater or lesser extent from the main US constitution.

The two main political parties are the Democrats (centre-left) and the Republicans (right-wing). Other parties include the Greens and Libertarians.  As these minor parties currently hold only 2 seats out of 535 in Congress, the US effectively has a two-party political system.

Legal Systems

The USA’s legal system is based on English common law. However, unlike England and Wales, the US has a written constitution. This constitution forms a framework for the laws of all the states; its tenets are supreme and no state law can contradict them.

As with the executive and legislature, the judiciary is divided into federal and state levels. Jurisdiction depends on which laws are involved. In cases involving federal laws and those involving foreign governments and disputes between different states, federal courts have sole jurisdiction. Sometimes jurisdiction is shared, but state courts have exclusive jurisdiction of most other cases. In most cases, parties can have trial by jury if they wish. However, most cases in the US are decided by settlement or legal motion and do not go to trial.

The court of first instance in the USA is the District Court. Each state has at least one District Court; there are 94 in total. At the intermediate level are the Courts of Appeals. There are 13 of these courts, one for every few states (which are grouped into circuits.) Here a panel of three judges hears appeals from parties from the District Courts. For federal matters, there is also a Federal Circuit, which deals with matters such as claims against the federal government.

The court of final instance is the Supreme Court, which chiefly deals with interpretation of the US Constitution. This includes adjudicating whether the actions of the president and Congress are constitutional, and also whether a state law impinges on the Constitution. Appeals that the Supreme Court decides to hear are deliberated by nine judges. In addition to this legal system, each state has its own legal system. These vary but are generally similar in structure to the federal system.



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