American Now! Civic Curriculum

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Definition of Citizenship:

A citizen is one who has specific rights and obligations within a political unit such as being a citizen of a country or a state. All countries have their own definitions and expectations of citizenship, although there are several similarities and differences across countries and types of government. For example, it is common for democracies to grant citizenship to all persons born within their jurisdictions although not all democracies have the same procedures for granting naturalization, nor do all democracies grant the same rights to naturalized citizens.

Who has citizenship in the United States?

Citizenship in the United States may be achieved through two methods: citizenship by birth and citizenship by naturalization.

Both methods for achieving citizenship are mentioned in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 and is the first time that citizenship is defined in the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution as ratified in 1788 mentions citizenship 13 times although it does not define it. For example, the U.S. Constitution limits office holding only to those who are U.S. citizens and requires that the president be a natural born citizen. The original U.S. Constitution fails to define who is a citizen.

Below is an excerpt of Section 1 of the 14th amendment:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction there of, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

“Aliens” are persons living in the U.S. who are not citizens Non-citizens include resident aliens, who live legally in the U.S., and illegal immigrants.

Becoming a Naturalized U.S. Citizen

A person who is not born a U.S. citizen may become a citizen through the naturalization process. The U.S. Congress has the power to make naturalization laws for the United States. Immigrants seeking to become naturalized citizens, one must meet the following conditions:

a) The person is over 18 years old
b) Must have been a resident of the United States for five years, without leaving for more than 30 months combined and for no more than 12 consecutive months throughout the five-year period.
c) Must file a petition for naturalization.
d) Must take an examination that shows that they can read, speak and write English, and demonstrate knowledge of American history and the U.S. Constitution.
e) Must be able to prove that they are of good moral character
f) Two U.S. citizens must confirm that the citizenship applicant will be a good citizen and will be loyal to the U.S.

Once a-f above has been met, the citizenship applicant must take the following Oath of Allegiance:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Exceptions to the Naturalization Process

The Child Citizenship Act of 2000 took effect on February 27, 2001. It allows non-U.S. citizen children under 18 who have at least one U.S. citizen parent, and who live in the legal and physical custody of that parent, to be granted automatic naturalized citizenship. The child must reside in the United States, and be a lawful permanent resident, at the time that citizenship is granted.

The Naturalization Examinatio

The following materials will help citizen applicants prepare for the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services Naturalization Civics and History Examination:

Questions may be found at:

Citizenship and Residency in Florida

The 14th Amendment’s definition of citizenship includes the following:

1. National citizenship comes before state citizenship
2. Citizens are entitled to rights granted by the national government
3. Citizens are entitled to rights granted by their own state’s government

Citizenship does not exist at the state level; there are no Florida citizens.
There are rights reserved to Florida residents. Residency in Florida is established once a person has lived in Florida for six months. Persons who have established residency in Florida have the right to receive a homestead (residential property tax) exemption on their home provided that they live there at least six months per year, and to receive college scholarships and other financial assistance reserved for Florida residents. Persons who live in Florida, but who have not yet established Florida residency, do have certain rights, such as voting (29 days residency) and securing a driver’s license (no minimum residency). Florida, like all other states, may not grant citizenship to aliens.

The Obligations and Responsibilities of U.S. Citizenship

Citizenship brings with it both obligations and responsibilities. The obligations of citizenship include those actions that citizens are required by law to take while the responsibilities of citizenship are those actions that citizens should take for the sake of the common good.

The notion of citizen responsibility may also be understood as enlightened self-interest. Enlightened self-interest suggests that when people act in a way that furthers others’ interests and that advances the interests of groups to which they belong consequently serves their own interest. Self-interest is often considered selfish or self-centered; by contrast, enlightened self-interest focuses on group-based action, where one sees a positive connection between group involvement broadly defined and self-interest that is tied to the virtue of doing what is right.

Obligations of Citizenship

Obey Laws

Citizens in a democracy elect legislatures and chief executives; these legislatures and chief executives are elected to represent citizen interests. Courts interpret whether these laws cohere to the U.S. Constitution. Citizens and non-citizens alike are obligated to obey laws whether they agree with them or not. Citizens and non-citizens who choose not to obey the laws may be prosecuted for their crimes; non-citizens who choose not to obey the laws may also be deported.

Pay Taxes

Taxes support government functions. Legislatures and chief executives enact tax laws the same as they do other laws. The 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows Congress to impose an income tax. The U.S. Supreme Court may not find income taxes unconstitutional because income taxes are protected by the 16th Amendment.

Defend the Nation

Swear allegiance to support and defend the U.S. Constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies.

Selective Service

Selective service is a system by which men (both citizens and resident aliens) ages 18 through 25 register with the U.S. government for military service. Selective service is not a draft; however, it is from the names included among those registered for selective service that a person drafted will be selected.

Serve on Juries

The sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides for a trial by jury in most cases as follows:

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed…”

Citizens who have reached the age of majority may be called upon to serve on juries.

Responsibilities of Citizenship

Citizens have a responsibility for selecting public officials who will represent their interests in government.

Attending civic meetings
Civic meetings are ways for citizens to be active participants in their government. Interest groups, political parties, candidates for public office, religious organizations, the media and public officials hold civic meetings in order to inform and learn from the public.

Petitioning government
The right of individuals to come together with others and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests. This includes the right to assemble in public places, and the right to join an association. Peaceable assembly is also understood as freedom of association. The U.S Supreme Court has upheld laws requiring general permits, as well as prosecutions for illegal demonstrations under certain circumstances.

The right of individuals to express themselves must be balanced against the need to maintain public order.
People are protected when they bring to the government’s attention their unresolved concerns, provide information to political leaders about unpopular policies and issues, and expose government misconduct. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that regulation of assembly may not be used to stifle dissent; unpopular groups may not be prevented from gathering based on the nature of the group’s message.

Running for office
Running for or being appointed to serve in public office as well as serving in public office

Roles, Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship

Obeying the Laws

Laws are the rules under which a society or community is governed. Everyone who lives in the United States, regardless if they are citizens or not, must follow federal, state and local laws. Laws are necessary because no society could exist if all people did just as they pleased, without respecting the rights of others. Police officers and courts make sure that laws are obeyed. If a person breaks a law, there is a penalty or punishment. The penalty for breaking a law depends on the law.

Paying Taxes

Taxes are required payments of money to the government. Taxes are necessary because they pay for things that most individuals could not possibly purchase for themselves, such a fire protection, schools, roads and much more. 

There are many different types of taxes and each type of tax pays for different public programs and services. For example, federal taxes pay for F.B.I. agents, federal judges, national park rangers, veterans benefits, federal prisons and much more. Some of the things that state taxes pay for include state highways, universities, public schools, state parks and police officers.

You often pay taxes and don’t realize it when you are buying things at the store. When you have a job, you have to pay taxes on the money you earn. Each year, you must file your taxes by sending all of your income information to the government so that they can determine if you owe more money for taxes or if you get a return. There are penalties for not filing your taxes each year.

Jury Duty

The right to a trial by jury is guaranteed to every person in the United States, whether the person is or is not a citizen. This right is guaranteed in the U. S. Constitution. To provide this constitutional right to people put on trial, other citizens must give up their time to serve as jurors. A jury consists of a group of people who are selected to hear the evidence in a civil or a criminal trial. After the jurors hear the evidence presented during the trial, they must try to decide if the defendant is guilty or not guilty.

Jurors’ names are selected at random from lists of registered voters and individuals who have a driver’s license issued by the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles. People receive a jury summons in the mail and must report to the court on the date and at the time listed on the summons. You can be fined or jailed for not showing up for jury duty.

Defending the Nation

Almost all males living in the United States are required to register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday. Selective Service is the system by which men ages 18 through 25 register with the U.S. government for possible military service.

Currently, the military is made up of volunteers. If a crisis occurs and the government decides they need a larger military than the amount of people who have volunteered, Congress can pass legislation to select males from the Selective Service System to become active members of the military


The government–whether it’s in Washington, DC, in your state, or in your hometown–affects your life and by voting, you get to say what’s important to you, and you say it straight to the elected leaders.

In order to vote, you must register. To be a registered voter in Florida, you have to be a U.S. citizen, a resident of Florida and at least 18 years old.

Elections are one of the few times when adults, 18 years old and older, all have an equal say. Even if the person you vote for loses, your vote matters because it lets winners and losers know who supports their points of view.

Attending Civic Meetings

Attending civic meetings, especially in your local community, provides you with a face-to-face opportunity with your government leaders.

By attending a school board or city council meeting you can become informed on the important issues that either group is dealing with. At a school board meeting, you can learn about important changes that might happen at your school and at a city council meeting you can hear about new ordinances and see how your city council chooses to vote.

At both of these types of meetings, you can have your voice heard about what is important to you as a member of the school or city. By learning about the issues facing the school board or city council, you can inform others and learn how to become involved in your community.

Petitioning Government

The right to petition is one of the freedoms listed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In general, the idea of petitioning the government means any nonviolent, legal means of encouraging or disapproving government action, directed to the legislative, executive or judicial branch.

A common way that petitioning the government occurs is through citizens writing a document about an issue and collecting signatures in support of the document. This document is known as a petition and is a formal, written request made to an official person or organized body, usually the government, and usually with a list of signatures to show the government body how many citizens support the request.

Many citizens sign petitions to provide their support for or against an issue.

Running for Office

In the United States, citizens can run for local, state, or federal office. The government affects many aspects of your life–whether it’s at the federal level, in Tallahassee, or in your city.

By running for office, you can state what is important to you and how you will be a good representative for your community.

In order to run for office in Florida, you must be a registered voter and complete a variety of forms so that you become an official candidate. Depending on the office you run for, there are requirements for how long you have lived in Florida, the county you live and/or the city you live in.

Community Services

Your community impacts your every day life. As a citizen, you often see problems or issues that need to be fixed in your school, city, state, or even the entire country.

As a member of a community and a responsible citizen, you can play a role in seeing these problems or issues get fixed. One way is by completing community service. Citizens at any age can identify issues in their community and seek out opportunities to help fix that issue. The common good of any community is realized when its citizens, seeing issues that need to be fixed, take the extra step of trying to solve them.

Core Themes in the Declaration of Independence Reflecting Colonial Concerns

There are three core themes, and multiple subthemes, found in the Declaration of Independence. It is a common misunderstanding that the Declaration of Independence formed a government, which it did not. This concept is important because the Declaration of Independence focuses instead of what the colonists found to be unacceptable governance. These unacceptable governance practices fell into three broad categories:

A. Power was concentrated in one place (unitary government). The concentration of power contributed to the abuse of power. The form of government that created this concentration of power was going to be avoided for this reason. Generally speaking, the new government that would be created would do its best to avoid the abuse of power.

For example, the preamble includes the following phrase:

“… Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

B. The colonists were denied acceptable representation in the legislature (“He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.”). Accordingly, the new government would guarantee representation in the legislature. Many historians and political scientists argue that the colonists identified representation in the legislature to be of key importance because the legislative power is the greatest among the three powers of government (legislative, executive, judicial). The legislative power is the greatest among the three powers of government because only laws can be enforced or adjudicated. The absence of laws means no adjudication or enforcement.

C. States’ rights were denied. King George III denied the states a voice in governance (“He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people.”). This meant that the new government would respect states’ rights for, among other reasons, states are closest to the people, and would more likely garner the people’s consent.

Together, the Declaration of Independence outlined the colonists’ concerns about how King George III treated them. While the Declaration does not itself form a government, it does indicate what the colonists would avoid (abuse or power, or tyranny) or pursue (representation in the legislature, states’ rights) when they did form governments in the future. The two governments that were eventually formed were organized under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789) and the U.S. Constitution (1789-present).

Reasons for Drafting the Declaration of Independence

The colonists’ decision to draft the Declaration of Independence followed several years of conflict between the British crown and the colonists. Historians argue that this relationship started to deteriorate in 1763 following the end of the Seven Years War. The Seven Years War resulted in significant debt for the British government. As a way to emerge from this debt, the British Parliament passed several laws that taxed the colonists including the Stamp Act (1765) and the Townshend Acts (1767). In 1774, the Parliament passed the Coercive Acts as a way to punish the colonists living in Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. The Coercive Acts compelled the First Continental Congress to meet in Philadelphia to agree on a response, which included a boycott of British goods and petitioning the king for a repeal of these acts. King George III did not respond to the colonists’ requests for relief on the principle that the colonists did not have the right to make such requests. The colonists generated a second petition in 1775, which was rejected by the king, and Common Sense was published in early 1776.

Between 1763 and 1776, the relationship between the colonists and the king deteriorated. The deterioration of this relationship was tied to taxes enacted by the British Parliament, and the king’s refusal to redress the colonists’ grievances.

Limited government and natural rights

The founding fathers were deeply concerned about government abusing its power. It was reasoned that when a government abused its power, it deprived the citizens of their liberty. As liberty was a fundamental God given right, assurances had to be put in place to protect the people from government abusing its power.

Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances

The U.S. Constitution is organized around a separation of powers system that utilizes checks and balances. The powers to legislate, enforce and adjudicate are separated into three different branches of government. These branches may not function with complete independence. The founding fathers feared that branches functioning independently might still abuse their power. Thus, while there are separate branches of government and each is vested with specific powers, this does not mean that each branch operates without some level of oversight from one or both other branches.

Montesquieu argued that government should be created to accommodate separate branches of government with equal but different powers. This way, power would not be concentrated with one individual or group of individuals. Liberty was threatened if power became concentrated in one place; thus, no branch of government could threaten the freedom of the people.

The Presidents Power

As president, or the head of the executive branch, you have the power to:

  • Propose laws to the Congress (the legislative branch);
  • Sign bills into law;
  • Veto bills from becoming laws;
  • Negotiate treaties with foreign countries;
  • Make executive appointments (to the Cabinet; to the Supreme Court; to federal agencies like the F.B.I.; etc.); and
  • Grant pardons to federal offenders.

The president can check the powers of the Congress by:

  • Proposing new legislation; and
  • Vetoing bills from becoming laws.

The president can check the powers of the Supreme Court by:

  • Appointing judges who share your political viewpoints; and
  • Enforcing the Court’s decisions.

You Be The Congress!

As a member of the Congress, or the legislative branch, you have the power to:

  • Introduce new laws;
  • Override a presidential veto;
  • Coin money;
  • Borrow money on behalf of the United States;
  • Appropriate money to the executive branch;
  • Declare war; and
  • Impeach or remove the president.

You can check the powers of the president by:

  • Overriding a presidential veto on a bill;
  • Impeaching or removing the president; and
  • Approving presidential appointments to the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, and federal agencies (like the F.B.I.).

You can check the powers of the Supreme Court by:

  • Confirming judiciary appointments to the Court;
  • Impeaching or removing justices; and
  • Proposing new amendments to the Constitution.

You Be The Supreme Court!

As a member of the Supreme Court, or the highest court in the judicial branch, you have the power to:

  • Declare laws unconstitutional through the power of judicial review; and
  • Interpret meaning of laws.

You can check the powers of the president by:

  • Declaring executive actions unconstitutional.

You can check the powers of the Congress by:

  • Declaring laws unconstitutional.

The U.S. Bill of Rights: Substance, Background and Ratification

The “Bill of Rights” is the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution; the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. It was intended to protect the people from the federal government abusing its power, specifically as to the rights of political and religious expression, the rights and protections accorded individuals accused of crimes, private property protection, and the rights of the people as they relate to federal and state laws. The Bill of Rights also includes rights related to gun ownership and the housing (quartering) of soldiers.

Extension of the Bill of Rights to the States

The Bill of Rights has been subject to extensive interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court. Many argue that the most notable interpretation occurred when the Court decided, in Gitlow versus New York (1925), that the 14th amendment could serve as a tool for applying the Bill of Rights to state law. The 14th amendment includes “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Gitlow case extended the “equal protection” and “due process” clauses of the Bill of Rights to the states on a selective basis. Because states may not deny U.S. citizens their due process and equal protection rights under the 14th amendment, U.S. citizens are protected when state laws deny them their rights under the federal Bill of Rights.

The process where the U.S. Supreme Court interprets state laws according to the protections established in the Bill of Rights is called “selective incorporation”—the court “selects” cases dealing with specific laws that, if found to violate the federal Bill of Rights, are “incorporated” into the Bill of Rights. This holds true even though the Bill of Rights was intended to protect citizens from the federal government and not the state governments.

The Florida Declaration of Rights: Substance, Background and Ratification

The Florida Declaration of Rights was added to Florida’s original 1833 Constitution in 1865. The current Declaration of Rights was included in Florida’s current constitution, which was ratified in 1968. Since Florida’s current constitution was put into place, the Declaration of Rights has been amended several times, most recently in 2004. The Florida Declaration of Rights is Article I, the first section of the current Florida Constitution. Many of the rights enumerated in the Florida Declaration of Rights are the same as, or similar to, the rights enumerated in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Recent additions to the Florida Declaration of Rights include the right to privacy (1998), access to public records and public meetings (2002), a taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (1992), and fair compensation for medical liability (2004).

Rights Listed in Amendments

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, also lists many individual rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees that the government will not interfere with these rights of the people. These rights can also be referred to as freedoms. For example, you have the right to exercise the religion of your choice and you have the freedom from the government establishing a religion.

1st Amendment
Freedom of religious exercise; freedom from government establishing religion. Freedom of speech. Freedom to assemble. Freedom to petition the government. Freedom of the press.
2nd Amendment
Right to bear arms for a well regulated militia
3rd Amendment
Freedom from quartering (housing) soldiers
4th Amendment
Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. Warrants must only be issued upon probable cause, and shall be specific
5th Amendment
Criminal indictments must be by grand jury. Freedom from double jeopardy. Freedom from testifying against oneself. Right to face accusers. Right to due process. Right of just compensation for takings
6th Amendment
Right to speedy trial. Right to impartial jury. Right to be informed of the charges upon which the accused is held. Right to face accusers. Right to produce witnesses for the accused. Right to legal counsel.
7th Amendment
Right to jury trial in civil cases. Facts found by a jury cannot be reexamined by another court.
8th Amendment
Freedom from excessive bail or fines. Freedom from cruel or unusual punishment
9th Amendment
Individuals have rights in addition to the rights listed in the other amendments and Constitution. The right to privacy is among those identified by the U.S. Supreme Court as being a 9th Amendment right.
10th Amendment
The federal government has only those powers specifically granted by the Constitution, any power not listed is left to the states or the people.

Over time, other amendments have been added to the U.S. Constitution to reflect additional rights that must be guaranteed to the people.

13th Amendment
Right to not be a slave.
14th Amendment
Right to citizenship of any person born or naturalized in the United States. Right to equal protection of the national and state laws. Right to be free of any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of a citizen. Right to be free of any law that deprives a person of life, liberty, or property without due process.
15th Amendment
Right to vote extended to racial and ethnic minorities.
17th Amendment
Right to vote for Senators.
19th Amendment
Right to vote extended to women.
23rd Amendment
Right to vote for presidential electors if a resident of Washington, D.C.
24th Amendment
Right to vote without a poll tax.
26th Amendment
Right to vote guaranteed for any citizen at least 18 years old.

Addressing the conflict between protecting and limiting rights
The First Amendment1 to the U.S. Constitution includes five freedoms or rights; these freedoms include religious exercise, speech, press, peaceable assembly and petitioning the government for redress of grievances. That the language of the First Amendment emphasizes freedom does not guarantee absolute freedom in any of these five areas. Individuals may not exercise these freedoms to the full extent that they might like because doing so would threaten the public interest. Federal and state laws, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, have all placed limitations on First Amendment freedoms in order to protect the public interest.

The public interest was argued and discussed at length by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. Their debates did not result in one clear definition or set of criteria for determining its presence or absence. However, the Framers deemed the public interest worthy of attention and protection because upholding it would create and foster a stable society. Consequently, rights and freedoms have been both protected and limited; protected because they form the foundational ideals of the U.S. political system, and limited in order to insure stability of that system.

The United States Constitution: Limiting and Safeguarding Individual Rights

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to create a federal government that was effective and powerful, but one that did not step on the rights of the individual or the powers of the states. By ensuring that the rights of individuals and the powers of states would be protected, this created a system where the powers of the federal government also became limited.

Political Parties in the United States

Political parties serve several interconnected roles in American politics. They serve a socializing role for the public, where they impact political knowledge and political activity. Party organizations oversee nominations and elections, contribute resources to political campaigns, and shape party messages. Parties also impact policy making and political decision making among elected officials. These roles are interconnected in that, how the public perceives political parties will impact their vote choice and campaign contribution decisions, which impacts who wins elections. How elected officials create and shape public policy impacts how the public perceives political parties because most elected officials are identified as political party members.

Political parties serve critical roles in democracies because they combine individual citizens’ political views and communicate them to government. In combining these views, the public’s voice is more readily heard by public officials. In the U.S., there are two major political parties. The two-party system emerged in response to the arguments over the development of a federal system. Those supporting the proposal to create a shared powers system between the national and state governments formed the Federalist Party while those who wanted to retain the Articles of Confederation or, at least, key components of the confederal system, formed the Democratic-Republican Party. The Democratic and Republican parties have served as the two main U.S. political parties since 1860.

Political Parties as Guides to Political Socialization

Political socialization is the process of learning about politics. Parties act as filters through which the public learns about, sees and understands the political process. For example, positive or negative feelings about Republicans and Democrats may lead to positive or negative feelings about office holders, candidates, and proposed and actual public policies. Political parties also act as a vote guide because voters more often select candidates who represent their own party identification or party registration.

Political Party Organization Roles

Party organizations function as a loose confederation in the United States because most party activity takes place at the state and local level. There are far more elected seats at the state and local levels when compared with the federal level, so it makes sense that political parties are more active where there are more elected offices.

Party organizations serve many electoral functions. They raise and spend money in order to help candidates get elected, and they shape and represent the party’s message on its core values and policy positions. Party organizations also recruit candidates to run for various offices, and recommend potential appointees to governors and presidents.

Party organizations are best known for their least frequent activity—nominating candidates for president and vice-president. Each party holds its nominating convention every four years. The purpose of these conventions is to nominate the presidential and vice-presidential ticket, and to adopt the party’s platform. Party platforms are written documents that include the party’s policy positions and past policy and election successes, and attacks on the opposing party.
Parties usually (though not always) hold their nominating conventions 6-12 weeks after the June primary so that the last nominating convention is over before the unofficial start of the general election campaign on Labor Day weekend. Conventions normally last 4-5 days; they begin on a Sunday or Monday and end the following Thursday. For various reasons, including media logistics, Democrats and Republicans nominate their presidential tickets during separate weeks.
Political Parties as Public Policy Guides

The role of parties as policy guides functions particularly well within the systems of separation of powers, checks and balances and federalism.

All elected offices are tied to party labels at the national and state levels although this does not preclude independents from seeking office. For example, as of 2013, two Congress members were elected as independents. At the local level, counties and cities decide if their public officials will seek election under party labels.

Members of Congress who share a party label tend to shape public policy together while different parties tend to take opposing views on key policy issues. Similarly, the president tends to spend more time with members of his own party in Congress compared with members of the opposite party.

Political Parties in the United States: Conclusion

Political party roles are connected to one another such that each impacts the other. How the public perceives the parties working together in their policy-making capacities, and in the policies that the parties support and oppose, impacts public support levels in terms of identification, registration, and vote choice. As the number of Democrats and Republicans increases or decreases, party organizations are similarly impacted. A party with fewer members, registrants or voters will have more difficulty raising money and recruiting good candidates compared with a party that is strong in these areas. Similarly, a party that has fewer members in legislatures, governorships, or does not hold the presidency, will have a more difficult time achieving its policy goals compared with a party that enjoys majorities in state and national legislatures, governorships and the presidency. Thus, even though these three roles impact different populations (the public, party activists, office holders) they are interconnected to one another as success or failure in one arena impacts how well a party does in other arenas.

The constitutional requirements to run for federal political office

The U.S. Constitution outlines the qualifications to run for federal office including the president and Congress. These qualifications differ based on citizenship requirements, age and residency. Below is a table of constitutional requirements for running for federal office.

Name of Office
Citizenship Requirements
Natural-born citizen
14 years in the U.S.
The Constitution does not outline the qualifications for vice-president although the vice-president must possess the same qualifications as the president since the vice-president takes office upon the president’s death, resignation or removal, or becomes acting president upon the president’s incapacitation.
U.S. Senate
Natural-born or naturalized citizen
9 years in the U.S.; must reside in the state that they represent
States may decide how to replace Senators who leave office due to death, resignation or removal. Options include appointment or special election. Senators may be appointed until such time that a special election may be held.
If there is less than two years left until the next election, the appointment may last until the end of the term. If that doesn’t happen, then the appointment will take place until the next scheduled congressional election. For example, Tim Scott from South Carolina, who was appointed by Nikki Haley to replace Jim DeMint, will run in a special election in 2014 even though DeMint was last elected for a 6 year term in 2010.
U.S. House of Representatives
Natural-born or naturalized citizen
7 years in the U.S.; must reside in the state that they represent
Members of the U.S. House of Representatives may only be replaced with special elections because the U.S. Constitution requires that “the People of the several States (spelling in original)” choose members of the House of Representatives (Article I, Section 2).


These are the qualifications to hold office. Still, there may be unusual circumstances when a candidate is not qualified to take office due to age or residency at the time that he or she files their candidacy although the candidate will meet the qualifications by the time that he or she takes office.
It is a common misconception that members of the U.S. House of Representatives must live in their districts in order to represent those districts; members of the U.S. House of Representatives must only live in the state in which their district is located.

The requirements to run for state and local political office

The Florida Constitution outlines the qualifications to run for state office including the governor and the state legislature. These qualifications differ based on age and residency. Below is a table of constitutional requirements for running for state office.

Name of Office
Citizenship Requirements
Natural-born or naturalized citizen
7 years in Florida
State senator
Natural-born or naturalized citizen
2 years in Florida; resident of the district being represented
State legislator (House of Representatives)
Natural-born or naturalized citizen
2 years in Florida; resident of the district being represented


These are the qualifications to hold office. Still, there may be unusual circumstances when a candidate is not qualified to take office due to age or residency at the time that he or she files their candidacy although the candidate will meet the qualifications by the time that he or she takes office.
County and city charters outline the elected offices in those political units including minimum qualifications and residency requirements to hold those offices.
No person may hold elective office in Florida unless they are a Florida elector (eligible to vote in Florida including at least age

Occupations of U.S Presidents
George Washington
Soldier, Planter
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
Lawyer, Planter
James Madison
Politician, Planter
James Monroe
John Quincy Adams
Lawyer, Senator, Diplomat
Andrew Jackson
Lawyer, Soldier
Martin Van Buren
William Henry Harrison
John Tyler
James K. Polk
Zachary Taylor
Millard Fillmore
Franklin Pierce
Lawyer, Public Official
James Buchanan
Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Tailor, Public Official
Ulysses S. Grant
Rutherford B. Hayes
James A. Garfield
Teacher, Public Official
Chester A. Arthur
Grover Cleveland
Benjamin Harrison
Grover Cleveland
William McKinley
Theodore Roosevelt
Author, Lawyer, Public Official
William Howard Taft
Lawyer, Public Official
Woodrow Wilson
Professor, College Administrator, Public Official
Warren G. Harding
Calvin Coolidge
Herbert Hoover
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Lawyer, Public Official
Harry S. Truman
Farmer, Businessman, Public Official
Dwight Eisenhower
John F. Kennedy
Author, U.S. Navy Officer, Journalist, Public Official
Lyndon Johnson
Teacher, Public Official
Richard Nixon
Lawyer, Public Official
Gerald Ford
Lawyer, Public Official
Jimmy Carter
Soldier, Farmer, Warehouseman, Public Official, Professor
Ronald Reagan
Actor, Public Official
George H. W. Bush
Businessman, Public Official
Bill Clinton
Lawyer, Public Official
George Walker Bush
Businessman, Public Official
Barack Obama
Community Organizer, Public Official

Why Voting Matters

It makes us equal. Each of us has one and only one vote. During elections, the act of voting is one of the few times when all adults in the U.S. have an equal say. No matter how much money you have or who your friends are, you only get one vote.

Each vote sends a message. Even if the person or issue you vote for loses, your vote matters because it lets winners and losers know who supports their points of view.

Politicians will notice who is and isn’t voting. In the U.S., the highest voter turnout is among seniors. So, it’s no surprise that politicians are going to spend a lot of time on issues that are important to older people, like Social Security and Medicare. Younger voters, 18-24 year-olds, haven’t voted in high numbers recently, so it’s easier for politicians to pay less attention to the issues that are important to young people.

Whoever wins has the power to impact your life. The government is in charge of making important decisions that impact almost every aspect of your life, like…

  • Your school such as what gets taught, how many kids are in your class
  • The environment including how clean your air and water will be
  • Your health, including whether you and your family can get health insurance
  • Who gets to visit, work and live in our country
  • Your safety including how big your police and fire departments are
  • How much money we spend on the military and whether we go to war

How the Process Works

Registration: Sign Up!

Before you can vote, you have to register as a voter in your state. Registration helps your local polling office keep track of who can and did vote. This also helps them to make sure no one votes more than once or tries to vote under someone else’s name. In Florida, voters must be registered at least 29 days in advance of a primary or election and voter registration is canceled when one registers in another state, dies, or participates in no election contests, including primaries and special elections, for at least ten years.

The Parties: Sizing up the Competition

In the U.S., most of our elected officials are from two large parties, Democrats or Republicans, However, there are also people who run for office that are not from either one of those parties. These other candidates come from what are called ‘Third Parties’ like the Communist Party, Green Party, Libertarian Party, and Socialist Party.

The Primaries and Caucuses: Narrowing Down the Pack

Only one candidate from each party can run in the final election. That’s where primaries and caucuses come in. Between late January and early June during the year of a general election, a few states hold caucuses, but most states choose their candidate using primary elections. Caucuses are small groups of people getting together to decide whom they want to support as their party’s candidate. Primaries are elections where everyone in the party who is interested votes for the party candidate. In Florida, you must be a registered member of a party in order to participate in the primary. If none of the candidates earn at least 50% of the vote, a runoff primary takes place.

The Conventions: Party-Time, Politicians Style

During a presidential election, after the primaries and caucuses, the major parties hold conventions to officially nominate their candidate for president.

After the candidates are nominated, their names are officially submitted to each state’s chief election official so that they will appear on the general election ballot.

The General Election

Now that each party has determined their candidates, the general election process begins. Candidates spend weeks campaigning in an attempt to win the support of voters. Even though a voter may belong to a particular party, he or she may vote for candidates from any party. Finally on Election Day, people exercise their right to vote.

In Florida, registered voters vote for candidates for local, state, and federal offices. They also vote on amendments, or changes, to the Florida Constitution. Voters also decide if justices of the Florida Supreme Court and judges of district courts can retain, or keep, their position on the court.

Federalism in the U.S. Constitution

The framing of the U.S. Constitution was organized around the power of the national and state governments. The first national government formed by the colonists following independence in 1776 was the Articles of Confederation, which focused power at the state level giving little power to the national government. The problems experienced under the Articles of Confederation became evident soon afterward: no unified foreign policy, state governments working against one another when facing common concerns, and a lack of coordination among states and between the states and the central government.

Adding to these concerns is that most of those attending the Constitutional Convention attended for the purpose of retaining the confederal system while addressing and fixing those factors that weakened it. James Madison worked with George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to shift the direction and purpose of the convention such that the final document, the U.S. Constitution, presented a federal structure.

Federalism is a system of government in which power is divided and shared between the national, state, and local governments. This division of powers extends exclusive powers to the national government only (enumerated, also known as delegated), the state governments only (reserved), or to both (concurrent). Federalism is found throughout the U.S. Constitution.

Making the Laws: The Legislature

Lawmaking is central to U.S. government. The separation of powers and checks and balances system gives priority to the lawmaking process; legislators are elected at every level of government, which gives direct power to citizens in deciding who makes the laws.

The United States Congress

Congress today is comprised of a 435 member House of Representatives and a 100 member Senate. The Constitution guarantees each state two Senators and at least one member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Legislation must be passed by at least one half of the membership of each chamber voting to approve (218 in the House; 51 in the Senate). The president, then considers proposed laws, or bills. Bills that are approved by the president become laws, which are called acts.

How Congress works: The committee system

Committees in Congress allow for deliberation and debate with a reduced number of members than the entire body. Trying to get 435 people to deliberate on a decision of national importance, or even 100, would be nearly impossible. The committee system also reflects the notion that members need to spend time on issues important to their district in order to serve their constituents well. Committees allow representatives to specialize on issues within a specific policy area. In their deliberations, committees hold hearings, conduct research, and write policy. Special interest groups often testify during these hearings in their efforts to shape legislation as it is being written. Some bills are not forwarded to the full house for a vote as the committee may recommend that a bill not receive further consideration. In other cases, the committee votes favorably on the bill and it is forwarded to the full house for a vote.

There are five different committee types in Congress; each committee type is served by members from one or both houses, and/or one or both parties (information on parties in Congress is found below), as follows:

Committee Type
Committee Purpose
Committee Membership

Permanent legislative panels that consider bills and issues
Members of one house, and both parties

Temporary committee that addresses a specific issue; once that committee’s business is complete, the committee dissolves
Members of one house, and both parties
Performs a special function beyond the authority or capacity of a standing committee
Members of one house, and one party
Policy exploration with a narrow jurisdiction
Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate
Temporary committee formed to reconcile differences in legislation passed by both chambers.
Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate

How Congress works: The party leadership system

Political parties are mentioned nowhere in the Constitution. Still, political parties play key roles in the organization of Congress, particularly committees.

The Democratic and Republican parties are the only parties recognized in Congress. Members of Congress may be elected from minor parties, or be elected as independents (both situations are rare) although they are not granted leadership opportunities.

There is a majority and a minority party in Congress. The majority party is determined based on which political party has the most members based on the most recent election. The minority party is the party with the lesser membership, also based on the most recent election.

Majority parties in Congress enjoy unique leadership opportunities. For example, the majority party selects the Speaker of the House of Representatives, which is the only office chosen by Representatives named in the U.S. Constitution. The Senate majority party elects the “President pro tempore”, or “pro tem” who serves in the absence of the Vice-President as president of the Senate. Majority party members also chair all standing and select committees, while the larger share of seats on each of these committees also comes from the majority party. Together, the majority party can guide the policy process because it holds leadership positions in each house, chairs all policy committees, and holds the majority on each of these committees. The Vice-President breaks ties in the Senate.

Party membership also relates to the purpose of the committee. Special committees are limited to members of one house and one party because special committees work toward a particular party’s goal, such as shaping a party’s position on a proposed policy, or getting members of that party re-elected to that house of Congress in the next election cycle. Similarly, when the committee’s purpose is to address matters of importance to all Congress members, both parties are represented from both houses. Conference committees have members from both houses and both parties because these committees negotiate agreements on bill differences between the two chambers. As both chambers must agree on the same version of all bills passed by Congress, members of both parties and houses should participate in the discussion over any revisions so that, once compromise is reached, each of conference committee members will recommend to their respective houses and parties that they support the agreed-upon version.

The Florida Legislature

Lawmaking in Florida follows a system similar to that practiced by the U.S. Congress. There is both a committee system and party leadership system in each legislative house. Party leadership posts are assigned based on majority and minority party membership. The majority party leadership appoints standing committee chairs. Committees are structured so that the majority party in the house holds the majority of seats on each standing committee.

Article IV of the U.S. Constitution guarantees to every state a republican (representative) form of government where the people elect the legislature and executive. Florida has a bicameral (two house) legislature comprised of a 120 member House of Representatives and a 40 member Senate. Both houses are term limited to eight years each, where members are allowed to serve eight years in each house (whether consecutive or non-consecutive terms) over their lives (total=16 years). House terms are two years each while Senate terms are four years each. Florida’s governor is limited to two four-year terms. The Florida legislature is a part-time legislature that meets 60 days each year beginning in early March and finishing in early May.

Being a bicameral legislature, a majority of each house of the Florida legislature must agree on all proposed laws, or bills, introduced before being forwarded to the governor. Bills passed by the Florida legislature and signed by the governor are called statutes.

Enforcing the Laws: The Chief Executive

The Founders’ fear that public officials, especially executives acting alone, would abuse their power is reflected in the checks and balances system linked to the presidency. There is only one unchecked power given to the president. Many argue that this unchecked power is actually a check on the legislative and judicial branches.

The President of the United States

The table below shows how Congress checks the president’s powers.

Presidential Power
Congressional Check
Chief Executive
Congress enacted laws
The president may ask Congress to enact a law that it does not want to enact
Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces
Congress declares war

Congress raises and supports armies and navies
Congress may choose to reduce or eliminate part or all of the armed forces
Nominates high level officials
Senate confirms nominations; nominees who are confirmed are then appointed to their positions.
The Senate may reject presidential nominations

The Senate may stall the nominations process

The president may withdraw a nomination that he suspects will not be confirmed by the Senate

The nominee may withdraws his or her nomination if he or she suspects that the nomination will be rejected by the Senate
Negotiates treaties
Senate approves treaties for ratification
The Senate may reject a treaty that the president has negotiated
Vetoes congressional bills
Congress may override a president’s veto with a 2/3 vote of each house of Congress.
The president may be compelled to enforce a law that he earlier rejected.
The president’s one unchecked power is the power to pardon. A presidential pardon cannot be vetoed or overturned, and may be viewed as a check on the courts or the legislature in that the president is pardoning someone who has already been convicted by the courts or who might later be impeached by the legislature. Gerald Ford is well known for pardoning former President Richard Nixon once he resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974 after the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee voted to recommend impeachment against Nixon on July 27, 1974. The presidential pardoning power does not extend to someone who has been impeached.

The President’s Cabinet

The president’s Cabinet was established in Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that: The President of the United States….may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Office (Capitalization in the original). The Constitution does not provide for a specific number of, or duties for, Cabinet departments.

Each executive department head is titled “Secretary” with the exception of the Department of Justice, which is headed by the Attorney General. Department Secretaries must be confirmed by a majority vote in the Senate. Cabinet secretaries have no set terms of office although they normally resign should the president who nominated them leave office.

Several positions hold Cabinet rank even though they are not secretaries of Cabinet level departments. These include the Vice-President of the United States, White House Chief of Staff, the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

The Florida Governor

Article IV of the Florida Constitution outlines the Governor’s core duties as follows:

The supreme executive power shall be vested in a governor, who shall be commander-in-chief of all military forces of the state not in active service of the United States. The governor shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, commission all officers of the state and counties, and transact all necessary business with the officers of government. The governor may require information in writing from all executive or administrative state, county or municipal officers upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices. The governor shall be the chief administrative officer of the state responsible for the planning and budgeting for the state.

The state lawmaking process is also similar to the federal process. There is a provision for an override of a governor’s veto requiring a 2/3 vote in each house).

The governor serves with a cabinet comprised of three statewide elected officers: Chief Financial Officer, Attorney General and Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Adjudicating the Laws: The Courts

The U.S. court system is comprised of several parts. The U.S. Constitution creates the U.S. Supreme Court; all other courts, which are inferior to the U.S. Supreme Court, are created, supported and mandated by Congress.

The National Court System

The vague nature of the judiciary branch is that there is no set number of judges on the U.S. Supreme Court (Tradition keeps the number at nine; this number is not a constitutional requirement) or on any other court, and there is no set number of courts. It is up to Congress to choose the number of U.S. Supreme Court members and on other courts. The U.S. Constitution requires that U.S. Supreme Court justices “hold their offices during good behavior” which translates to lifetime appointments unless removed by Congress.

Cases that are first heard by the U.S. Supreme Court (“original jurisdiction”) tend to involve disputes, which may include conflicts between two states, between the president and Congress, or cases where a state is a party. All other cases come before the U.S. Supreme Court in its role as the highest court of appeal. The U.S. Constitution is very specific as to which types of cases may come before it as cases of original jurisdiction, which cannot be rejected. The Constitution is otherwise vague as to which types of cases are to be heard on appeal. All cases are decided with a majority vote.

The bulk of the Court’s work is appellate cases. Any case submitted on appeal may be rejected; in a typical year, the U.S. Supreme Court is asked to grant a hearing (“writ of certiorari”) to approximately 10,000 appeals cases; it accepts about 1%, or 75-80 cases, which require four votes in order to be “granted cert”. For cases not granted a writ of certiorari, the decision made at the most recent court is deemed the final decision in that case. Cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court may not be appealed.

The power of the courts changed considerably in the early 19th century when the U.S. Supreme Court took on the role of interpreter of the U.S. Constitution. In Marbury v. Madison 5 U.S. 137 (1803) (Summary available at, “Marbury v. Madison”), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that it had the sole right to decide whether an Act of Congress violated the U.S. Constitution. In essence, the Court decided that it had the power to make “case law” where the Court interprets what the U.S. Constitution means and whether, based on that meaning, a law is nullified because it is incongruent with the U.S. Constitution. This process of making law through cases has broadened the role of the U.S. Supreme Court because it gives the Court powers beyond those stated in the U.S. Constitution. Since Marbury v. Madison, the Court has also undertaken statutory review, where the Court decides what a law or statute means. In these instances, the Court is deciding what a law means and thus, how it should be implemented.

The Court System in Florida

The court system in Florida is mixed. Judges presiding at the county and city level are elected, while Florida’s state court judges are appointed through a merit retention system where they are appointed by the governor and retained every seven years by the people through a yes/no ballot. The court system is divided into multiple units including a supreme court, district courts of appeal, circuit courts and county courts.

The following information is adapted from “Florida’s State Court System” available on the Florida Supreme Court “Public Information Link” (

The Supreme Court of Florida

Florida’s highest Court in Florida is the Supreme Court, which is composed of seven Justices. At least five Justices must participate in every case and at least four must agree for a decision to be reached. The Supreme Court must review final court orders imposing death sentences, district court decisions declaring a State statute or provision of the State Constitution invalid and other matters. The Court is responsible for disciplining and removing judicial officers.

Lower Courts in Florida

The Supreme Court never hears the bulk of trial court decisions that are appealed. Rather, three-judge panels of district courts of appeal review them. In each district court, the district court judges within the district select a chief judge.

District courts of appeal may hear appeals from final judgments and review certain non-final orders. By general law, the district courts have been granted the power to review final actions taken by state agencies in carrying out the duties of the executive branch of government. District courts may issue summary judgments, which are judgments issued without a trial.

Decisions of the district courts of appeal represent the final appellate review of litigated cases. A person who is displeased with a district court’s express decision may ask for review in the Florida Supreme Court and then in the U.S. Supreme Court, but neither tribunal is required to accept the case for further review. Most are denied.

Most jury trials take place before one judge sitting as judge of the circuit court. The circuit courts are sometimes referred to as courts of general jurisdiction, in recognition of the fact that most criminal and civil cases originate at this level. The Florida Constitution provides that a circuit court shall be established to serve each judicial circuit established by the Legislature, of which there are twenty. Within each circuit, there may be any number of judges, depending upon the population and caseload of the particular area.

Circuit courts have general trial jurisdiction over matters not assigned by statute to the county courts and also hear appeals from county court cases. Circuit courts are simultaneously the highest trial courts and the lowest appellate courts in Florida’s judicial system.

Florida Local Government

Florida’s local governments are comprised of counties and municipalities such as cities, towns and villages.

An elected board of county commissioners governs in each of Florida’s 67 counties. Counties must carry out constitutionally mandated responsibilities and those established by the state. County-level constitutional services include law enforcement and jail administration, tax collection, property appraisal, state court administration and election supervision. Counties oversee road maintenance, public health, and solid waste disposal, among other responsibilities. County commissions determine other county services. Orange County, Florida’s county government is unique in that Orange County has a countywide elected mayor. Otherwise, Florida’ county commissioners choose their own commission chair from among their membership. Commission chairs oversee commission meetings.

Each county has its own school district that has elected school boards that govern the day-to-day operations of K-12 public education. School districts are a special-purpose local government. Funding is provided through property taxes and state revenues.

Florida also has special districts of which there are two types. Independent districts are created by the legislature for a specific purpose to be provided in a certain area such as water management districts, fire service, inland navigation, and ditch maintenance. The funding and governance of each is set by the legislature. Dependent special districts are created by cities and counties, are governed by the city or county elected commission, and derive their authority, funding and support from that government. There are about 600 independent and 300 dependent special districts throughout Florida.

Florida cities

Cities are independent municipal governments founded by citizens who choose its name. Ordinances are the laws that govern cities. The city charter serves as a constitution. The charter sets forth the boundaries of the municipality, its form of government, the size of the council and governmental processes. In Florida, the legislature approves the municipality through a special act, and the citizens through a referendum approve the charter.

In Florida, a city is recognized with certain rights and privileges; the most important is home rule. Florida’s constitution recognizes that cities may enact their own ordinances and self-govern as long as the city’s law does not conflict with state and federal law. Home rule powers do not extend to fiscal home rule because the state reserves all taxing authority to itself.

Self-government at the city level occurs with mayors, who serve as cities’ chief executives, and city councils, which serve as city legislatures. City charters determine how much power mayors have; some mayors’ function within “strong mayor” forms of government while other cities utilize the “weak mayor” form of government. Rules regarding the length of terms, whether terms are limited, and, in how many persons will serve on city councils, are outlined in city charters.

County Courts

Florida’s constitution establishes a court in each of Florida’s 67 counties. The number of judges in each county court varies with population and caseload. To be eligible for the office of county judge, a person must be eligible to vote in that county and have been a member of The Florida Bar for five years; in counties with a population of 40,000 or less, a person must only be a member of The Florida Bar to be a county judge. County judges are eligible for assignment to circuit court, and are frequently assigned within the judicial circuit that embraces their counties.

The trial jurisdiction of county courts is established by statute. The jurisdiction of county courts extends to civil disputes involving $15,000 or less. The majority of non-jury trials in Florida take place before one judge sitting as a judge of the county court. The county courts are sometimes referred to as “the people’s courts,” because a large part of the courts’ work involves citizen disputes, such as traffic offenses, misdemeanors, and small monetary disputes.

The Design of the U.S. Court System in the U.S. Constitution

Article III of the U.S. Constitution outlines the court system in the United States, which is divided into three sections.

The first section of Article III provides information about the organization of the court system, which is divided into two parts, supreme and inferior. This means that only the U.S. Constitution establishes the U.S. Supreme Court. Otherwise, it is up to the U.S. Congress to create, mandate (such as to the states) and support all other courts. The court system that has since been created includes several layers of courts.

The first section also makes an indirect reference to the Declaration of Independence. In that document, the colonists complained that King George III had denied the court system independence in its decision making as follows:

“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.”

“He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”

These two statements suggest that King George III had deprived the courts the right to make independent decisions. Judges whose views contradicted the king’s views were at risk of losing their jobs or having their salaries reduced. The Founders’ response to this was to create a judiciary branch that enjoyed independence in that judges held their positions for life and their salaries were never reduced as long as they held office.

The uniqueness of Article III, Section 1 is in its vagueness. There is no set number of judges on the U.S. Supreme Court (Tradition keeps the number at nine; this number is not a constitutional requirement) or on any other court, and there is no set number of courts. It is up to Congress to decide how many members there will be on the U.S. Supreme Court and on other courts.

The Powers of the U.S. Court System in the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution outlines the power of the courts in two ways. First, Article III, Section 2 provides a specific list of the types of cases that are heard by the courts. From there, the Constitution is specific as to which types of cases are heard by the U.S. Supreme Court as the first court that hears the case (“original jurisdiction”) or whether the case comes to the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal.

Cases that are first heard by the U.S. Supreme Court tend to be those cases involving certain types of disputes. These disputes may include conflicts between two states, between the president and Congress, or cases where a state is a party. Other than the types of cases outlined in Article III, Section 2, all other cases come before the U.S. Supreme Court in its role as the highest court of appeal. The U.S. Constitution is very specific as to which types of cases may come before it as cases of original jurisdiction, but is otherwise vague as to which types of cases are to be heard on appeal, which the Court may reject. In a typical year, the U.S. Supreme Court is asked to grant a hearing to approximately 10,000 cases; it usually accepts less than 1% or 75-80 cases. For those cases rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision made at the most recent court that heard the case is deemed the final decision in that case. Cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court may not be appealed.

The Power of Judicial Review and Interpreting the U.S. Constitution

The design of the court system, where there is no set number of judges or courts, and that judges remain in office for life, retirement, or unlikely removal, indicates that, except in limited cases of original jurisdiction, the courts were not expected to be very powerful. Had the Founders believed that the courts might abuse their power, they may have been more specific in their design of the courts, set terms of office for judges, or otherwise provided for judicial accountability.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided, in 1803, that it had the sole right to decide whether an act of Congress or the president violated the U.S. Constitution. In essence, the Court decided that it had the power to make law through a process called “case law” where the Court interprets what the U.S. Constitution means and whether, based on that meaning, a law is nullified because it is incongruent with the U.S. Constitution. Later, following ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, the U.S. Supreme Court’s power of judicial review grew to include states such that the U.S. Supreme Court may now declare state laws unconstitutional. These case law processes have broadened the role of the U.S. Supreme Court because it gives the Court powers beyond those stated in the U.S. Constitution.

The Judicial Branch in Florida

Florida’s judicial branch is outlined in Article V of the Florida Constitution. The court system is divided into multiple divisions including a supreme court, district courts of appeal, circuit courts and county courts. Florida’s court system is mixed in that the judges presiding at the county and city level are elected, while Florida’s state court judges, including members of the Supreme Court, are appointed through merit selection.

The federal government and state and local governments in the U.S. are obligated by the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions and local charters to provide services to people living within their jurisdictions. The obligations and services provided by each level of government speak to the role that these governments play in citizens’ lives.

1. The federal government’s obligations and services to the people

Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution outlines the powers of Congress. These powers of Congress list the federal government’s obligations to the people.

The opening phrase of Article I, Section 8 demonstrates the obligations and services that the federal government is obligated to provide:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

The federal government is obligated to provide services to citizens equally regardless of the state in which they live. For example, in providing for the “common defense”, the federal government is obligated to defend any citizens who are threatened by foreign aggressors no matter where they live in the U.S. Similarly, all male citizens and resident aliens age 18-26 must register for Selective Service no matter the state in which they live.

Article I, Section 8 enumerates (lists) the powers of Congress. The final clause of this section extends to Congress whatever powers it needs to carry out the enumerated powers listed up to that point in the section.

The “elastic clause” is shown here:
To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

The final clause of Article I, Section 8 is called either the “elastic clause” or the “necessary and proper clause”, both of which indicate that the Congress may do whatever it needs to in order to fulfill its obligations and services to the people. Powers that are given to the federal government are also called “delegated” powers.

Together, the terms that are used to describe federal powers are: delegated, enumerated and express all of which suggest that powers used to fulfill federal obligations are limited. Still, that Congress may do what it believes it needs to in order to fulfill its obligations suggests that Congress’ powers are not as limited as Article I, Section 8 would suggest.

2. The state government’s obligations and services to the people

The State of Florida is obligated to provide specific services to individuals living in Florida. These services include public safety, law enforcement, health services and education. Florida’s obligations and services are granted through the Tenth Amendment, which reads as follows:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
As indicated by the Tenth Amendment, the states have “reserved” powers, which are powers that the state governments have to fulfill their obligations and services. The powers reserved to the states are not limited; states may do what they want as long as they are not forbidden from doing so by the federal government.

The Florida state government has the highest authority over local government affairs, as defined by the U.S. federal system. Local governments, counties and cities, are subdivisions of the state government. They may not pass laws that conflict with state laws.

3. Local obligations and services to the people

Note: The following material is adapted from Florida League of Cities: Florida City and County Government: A Teacher Handbook 1991, Unit 2, Lessons 1-3 and Unit 6, Lesson 3.

Public safety is a key responsibility of local government that provides law enforcement, fire protection, animal control and protection, and code enforcement.

Public safety is a key responsibility of local government. One of the most important safety services provided by city and county government is police protection and law enforcement. City police officers and county sheriffs are responsible for enforcing federal, state and local laws. In the event of a declared emergency, local law enforcement authorities are obligated and empowered to enforce all orders, rules and regulations issue pursuant to the state Emergency Management Act. Public safety also includes fire protection, building inspection, code enforcement, animal control and protection, and emergency medical and rescue services.

Public services are basic city services that include transportation and public works, sanitation, solid and liquid waste management, air quality management, toxic and hazardous waste disposal, storm water management, parks, public recreational services, libraries, water purification, wastewater (sewage) treatment, cable television, airports, ports, harbors, public cemeteries, golf courses, public housing assistance, and electric or gas utilities.

Counties must carry out constitutionally mandated responsibilities and those established by the state. County-level constitutional services include law enforcement and jail administration, tax collection, property appraisal, state court administration and supervision of elections. Counties are also charged with road maintenance, public health, solid waste disposal and other environmental responsibilities. Elected county officials determine other county services.

Each county has its own school district that has elected boards that govern the day-to-day operations of K-12 public education. School districts are a special-purpose local government. Funding is provided through property taxes and state revenues.

4. Sharing obligations, services and powers

The information provided here demonstrates that federal, state and local governments share responsibility to provide for the general welfare. In order to fulfill these responsibilities, governments are extended powers, some of which are limited by the U.S. and state-level constitutions. Federal obligations and services extend to all Americans no matter the state in which they live while state obligations and services are provided to all who live within that state’s borders. In Florida, every inch of land is included in one of Florida’s 67 counties. Each of Florida’s counties is obligated by the state government and by county charter to fulfill various obligations and services. Over one-half of all Florida residents live in one of Florida’s 400+ cities; like counties, cities are obligated to provide services to those living within city limits.

Concurrent powers are powers that are shared between and among the federal, state and local governments. For example, both the federal and state governments have the power to tax while both the federal and state governments are obligated to provide public services, such as health and medical care.