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Table of Contents


The US Congress and Domestic and Economic Policy             The Presidency and Foreign Policy

The National Bureaucracy               The National Courts               Civil Liberties and Civil Rights   








The US Congress and Domestic and Economic Policy

Comparing the House and Senate



435 members serving two-year terms 100 members serving rotating six-year terms
Speaker's referral of bills to committee hard to challenge Referral decisions easy to challenge
Committees almost always consider legislation first Committee consideration easily bypassed
Rules Committee powerful -
controls time of debate, admissibility of amendments
Rules Committee weak -
few limits on debate or amendments
Debate usually limited to one hour Unlimited debate unless shortened by unanimous consent or invoking cloture
Non-germane amendments may not be introduced from floor Non-germane amendments may be introduced (riders)



I. Qualifications to Run for Congress


25 years of age when seated, not when elected

US citizen for 7 years

resident of state from which elected: custom that a representative live in the district that he/she represents, not Constitutional


30 years of age when seated, not when elected

US citizen for 9 years

resident of state from which elected


C-Span Congressional Resources

Power Rankings



II. Congressional Leadership

A. Senate

1. Majority Party (most senators)

President Pro Tempore: selected by majority party and usually most senior member of the Senate majority party

Majority Leader: leads majority party

Majority Whip: assists majority leader, rounds up votes, heads group of deputy whips

Chairman of the Conference: presides over meetings of all members of the Senate majority party

Policy Committee: schedules legislation

Legislative Review Committee: reviews legislative proposals and makes recommendations to senators of the majority party

Steering Committee: assigns Senators of the majority party to committees

2. Republican/Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: provides funds, assistance to Republican/Democratic candidates for the Senate

3. Minority Party (least senators)

Minority Leader: leads minority party

Assistant Minority Leader: assists minority leader, rounds up votes

Chairman of the Conference: presides over meetings of all senators of the minority party

Policy Committee: makes recommendations on party policy

Committee on Committees: assigns Senators of the minority party to committees

Senate Reference Section

B. House

1. Majority Party (most representatives)

Speaker of the House: selected by the majority party

Majority Leader: leads majority party

Majority Whip: assists majority leader, rounds up votes, heads large group of deputy and assistant whips

Chairman of the Caucus: presides over meetings of all members of the majority party

Steering and Policy Committee: schedules legislation, assigns members of the majority party to committees

2. Republican/Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: provides funds, advice to Republican/Democratic candidates for the House

3. Minority Party (least representatives)

Minority Leader: leads minority party

Minority Whip: assists minority leader, rounds up votes, heads large forum of deputy and assistant whips

Chairman of the Conference: presides over meetings of all members of the minority party

Committee on Committees: assigns members of the minority party to committees

Policy Committee: advises on party policy

Research Committee: on request, provides information about issues



III. Powers of Congress

found in Article 1, section 8, of the Constitution -

levy and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises

borrow money

regulate commerce with foreign nations, among the states and with Indian tribes

establish rules for naturalization (becoming a citizen)

establish rules for bankruptcy

coin money, set its value and punish counterfeiting

fix the standard of weights and measures

establish a post office and post roads

issue patents and copyrights to inventors and authors

create courts inferior to (below) the Supreme Court

define and punish piracies, felonies on the high seas and crimes against the law of nations

declare war

raise and support an army and navy and make rules for their governance

provide for a militia (reserving to the states the right to appoint militia officers and to train the militia under congressional rule)

exercise exclusive legislative powers over the seat of government (the District of Columbia) and over places purchased to be federal facilities (forts, arsenals, dockyards and "other needful buildings")

"make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for the carrying into execution the foregoing powers and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States"



IV. How a Bill Becomes LawHOW OUR LAWS ARE MADE

A. Introduction: any member can introduce a piece of legislation

House: legislation is handed to clerk of the House or placed in hopper

Senate: members must gain recognition of the presiding officer to announce the introduction of a bill during the morning hour … introduction of bill postponed until next day if any senator objects

The Legislative Processbill assigned a number (HR 1 or SB 1)

bill labeled with the sponsor's name

bill sent to Government Printing Office (GPO) to make copies

Senate bills can be jointly sponsored

members can cosponsor legislation

B. Committee: bill referred to appropriate committee by Speaker of the House or presiding officer in Senate … often actual referral decision made by the House or Senate parliamentarian

bill may be referred to more than one committee

bill may be split so that parts are sent to different committees

Speaker of the House may set time limits on committees

bills placed on calendar of the committee to which assigned

failure to act on a bill is equivalent to killing it

bills in House can only be released from committee without a proper committee vote by a discharge petition signed by a majority of the House membership (218 members)

Committee Steps:

1. comments about the bill's merit are requested by government agencies

2. bill can be assigned to subcommittee by chair

3. may hold hearings

4. subcommittees report findings to the full committee

5. vote by the full committee: bill is "ordered to be reported"

6. committee will hold "mark-up" sessions during which it will make revisions and additions ... if substantial amendments are made committee can order the introduction of a "clean bill" which will include the proposed amendments, have a new number and be sent to floor while the old bill is discarded (chamber must approve, change or reject all committee amendments before conducting a final passage vote)

7. after bill reported, committee staff prepares written report explaining why they favor bill and why they wish to see amendments, if any, adopted … committee members who oppose a bill sometimes write a dissenting opinion in report

8. report sent to whole chamber and placed on calendar

9. House: most bills go to Rules committee before reaching floor and committee adopts rules that will govern procedures under which the bill will be considered, for example, a "closed rule" sets strict time limits on debate and forbids introduction of amendments

10. rules can have major impact on whether bill passes … rules committee can be bypassed in three ways: (1) a vote of members to suspend rules, (2) file a discharge petition or (3) the House can use a Calendar Wednesday procedure

C. Floor

1. Calendar

House: bills placed on one of four House Calendars in the order which reported but don't usually come to floor in that order and some never reach the floor at all

Speaker of the House and Majority Leader decide what will reach floor and when (legislation can also be brought to floor by discharge petition)

Senate: legislation placed on Legislative Calendar … Executive Calendar deals with treaties and nominations

Scheduling of legislation is job of Majority Leader but bills also brought to floor whenever majority of Senate chooses

I'm Just a Bill


2. Debate

House: Debate limited by rules formulated in the Rules Committee … Committee of the Whole debates and amends bill but cannot technically pass it. Debate guided by Sponsoring Committee and time divided equally between proponents and opponents. Committee decides how much time to allot to each person. Amendments must be germane to subject of bill - no riders allowed. Bill is reported back to House (to itself) and voted on. A quorum call is a vote to make sure there are enough members present (218) to have final vote. If no quorum, House will adjourn or will send Sergeant at Arms out to round up missing members.

Senate: debate unlimited unless cloture invoked. Members can speak as long as they want and amendments need not be germane - riders are often offered. Entire bills can be offered as amendments to other bills. Unless cloture is invoked, Senators can use a filibuster to defeat a measure by "talking it to death"

3. Vote

If passed, sent to other chamber unless that chamber already has a similar measure under consideration. If either chamber does not pass bill dies. If the House and Senate pass the same bill then sent to President. If the House and Senate pass different bills they are sent to Conference Committee. Most major legislation goes to a Conference Committee.

D. Conference Committee

1. Members from each house form conference committee and meet to work out differences. Committee usually made up of senior members appointed by presiding officers of the committee that originally dealt with bill. Representatives from each house work to maintain their version of the bill.

2. If the Conference Committee reaches compromise, it prepares a written conference report submitted to each chamber.

3. Conference report must be approved by both House and Senate.

E. President: bill sent to President for review

1. Bill becomes law if signed by President or if not signed within 10 days and Congress is in session.

2. If Congress adjourns before 10 days and President has not signed bill it does not become law ("pocket veto").

3. If President vetoes bill it is sent back to Congress with note listing reasons. The chamber that originated the legislation can attempt to override veto by a vote of of those present. If the veto of the bill is overridden in both chambers it becomes law.

4. Once a bill is signed by President or his veto overridden by both houses it becomes a law and is assigned an official number.


V. The Budget Process

A. Budget FactsFederal Spending Cartoon

The government spends most of our money on a few major programs.

Social Security, Unemployment, Labor 33%

Defense 16%

Medicare and Health 27%

Medicaid 7%

Interest on National Debt 16%

The government collects most of its revenues from a few main sources.

Here are the income taxes paid by the respective income percentiles. Note how little the bottom half pay (blue). Note how much more as a percentage of the whole the top 5% are paying.    Individual Income Taxes 47%

    Social Security Receipts 32%

    Corporate Income Taxes 13%

In its first three years, the government spent a total of about $4 million. By 1800, total annual spending amounted to less than $11 million. National spending climbed during the 1930s from $4 billion in 1931 to over $8 billion in 1936. WWII increased that number to over $91 billion by 1944. Today the total has climbed to $4.1 trillion.

Because often total revenues do not cover total spending, the government borrows money to finance any annual deficit. The total it has borrowed over the years, but not repaid, is the national debt. In its first 150 years, the government sometimes generated budget deficits (for instance, to finance a war) but later ran surpluses and repaid the debt that had accumulated. Budget deficits had grown more frequent in the last half-century and they soared during the 1980s. At the end of fiscal year 1977 the deficit was $706 billion. By the end of fiscal year 1997 it was $5.38 trillion - almost 8 times as much as it had been 20 years earlier. However, in 2001, the national budget ran a surplus of $184 billion.

B. Types of SpendingFY 2016 revenues and budget

1. Discretionary: 35% of all Federal Spending

This is the money the President and Congress must decide to spend each year. It includes money for such programs as the FBI, Coast Guard, housing, education, space exploration, highway construction, defense, foreign aid and so on.

2. Mandatory: 65% of all Federal Spending

This is the money that the national government spends automatically - Mandatory Spending 2015unless the President and Congress change the laws that govern it. It includes entitlements - such as Social Security, Medicare and Food Stamps - through which individuals receive benefits because they meet some criteria of eligibility (e.g. age, income). It also includes interest on the national debt, which the Government pays to individuals and institutions that buy saving bonds and other US securities. Despite its name, however, mandatory spending is not unchangeable. The President and Congress can change the laws that govern entitlements or taxes but they must take explicit action to do so since they include laws other than appropriations acts.

C. The Budget Process

The President's budget is sent to Congress in early February. This proposal is his plan for the next fiscal year, beginning October 1. This plan, however, only becomes official after Congress passes and the President signs spending bills and legislation creating new taxes and entitlements.

After receiving the President's budget, Congress examines it in detail. Scores of committees and subcommittees hold hearings on proposals under their jurisdiction. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees, for instance, hold hearings on the President's defense plan. If the President's plan contains proposals that affect federal revenues, the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees hold hearings. The President, the Budget Director, the Cabinet and others work with Congress as it accepts some proposals, rejects some and changes others.

Each year Congress must pass and the President must sign, 13 appropriation bills that include all of the discretionary spending. The President and Congress do not have to enact new laws governing entitlements or taxes. If they do not, the government will pay the benefits for Social Security and other programs and collect the taxes required by laws already in place.

D. Budget Calendar

                                                                                    The Budget Calendar

No later than the 1st Monday in February

The President transmits the budget, including a sequester preview report.

Six weeks later

Congressional committees report budget estimates to the Budget Committee.

April 15th

Action completed on congressional budget resolution.

May 15th

House consideration of annual appropriations bills may begin.

June 15th

Action completed on reconciliation.

June 30th

Action on appropriations completed by House.

July 15th

The President transmits the Mid-Session Review of the budget.

August 20th

OMB updates the sequester preview.

October 1st

The fiscal year begins.

15 days after the end of a session of Congress

OMB issues final sequester report and the President issues a sequester order if necessary.


US National Debt Clock

Okay, Folks, Let's Put Aside Politics and Talk About Taxes...

Understanding the Federal Budget

Mandatory vs. Discretionary Spending

Where the Current National Debt Comes From

Coverage of the Development of the Federal Budget for 2016

FY 2016 Budget in Pictures

We the Economy Films: Chapter 3: What is the role of our government?

o   Why is our tax system so complicated? Can a cartoon conquer a challenge like today’s tax system, with its ever-changing, 75,000 pages of laws? With retro flair, "Taxation Nation" looks into how our tax system does – and doesn’t – work.

o   Where do our tax dollars go? Uncle Sam takes a cut of our earnings every April. But what does he spend our hard-earned money on? The answers will truly surprise you in this vérité odyssey.

o   Why does the US fund foreign aid? The US spends approximately $37 billion dollars a year on foreign aid - just under 1% of our federal budget. "The Foreign Aid Paradox" zeroes in on food aid to Haiti and how it affects American farming and shipping interests as well as Haiti’s own agricultural markets. The result: a surprising study in unintended consequences.

o   Why do we have budget deficits and a national debt? In this free-wheeling animated film, you’ll see how Congress and public officials use and manage debt, and why it matters to you.

Understanding Taxes



Policy Basics: Introduction to the Federal Budget Process


Budget Hero was launched in May 2008,

re-launched in September 2012 and retired

in August 2014 by Public Insight Network.

I’m keeping the link ready (and my fingers crossed!)

for the next re-launch.



VI. Making Policy (Click on link to access notes.)



VII. Domestic Policy (Click on link to access notes.)



VIII. Economic Policy (Click on link to access notes.)














The Presidency and Foreign Policy


I. Qualifications

A. Must be a natural-born citizen of the US (can be born abroad of parents who are American citizens).

B. Must be 35 years of age.

C. Must be a resident of the US for at least 14 years (but not necessarily the 14 years preceding the election).




II. Benefits

A. White House

B. a chef

C. a salary of $400,000 per year (taxable)

D. expense account of $50,000 per year (taxable)

E. travel expenses of $100,000 per year (tax-free)

F. pension, on retirement, cabinet member's salary (taxable)

G. staff support on leaving the presidency

H. a place in the country: Camp David ON BOARD AIR FORCE ONE

I. a personal airplane:Air Force One







[If you see the message Error Loading Image in either of the two players above, just ignore it and hit the play button.]



III. The President's Roles

  1. Commander in Chief of the Military

    The President is responsible for all military decisions. Ultimately, any military action taken by this nation is his responsibility. This is particularly important because of the nature of the use of weapons ... they start wars and people die.

  2. Chief Diplomat

    The President is the nation's chief diplomat. It is his responsibility to negotiate treaties and conduct foreign affairs.

  3. Chief Executive

    All of the heads of the agencies in Washington report to the President. In the end he is responsible for carrying out the law and making sure the bureaucracy runs efficiently.

  4. Head Legislator

    Often the President suggests laws and he is always pushing for legislation he feels is important. In this function he often acts as a lobbyist, exerting pressure and shepherding bills through Congress. The President must also sign and/or veto legislation.

  5. Leader of Public Opinion

    The President is the one office for which the entire nation votes. He represents and leads the nation. This is particularly difficult considering the contentious nature of politics. Often in trying to lead public opinion he only serves to enrage half of the country. That's what politics is all about.

  6. Head of His/Her Political Party

    The President is responsible for helping to get members of his party elected / reelected (as well as himself). While this is not an official function it is very time-consuming.



IV. The Powers of the President

  1. According to Article II of the Constitution the President has the following powers:

    1. Serve as commander in chief of the armed forces

    2. Commission officers of the armed forces

    3. Grant reprieves and pardons for federal offenses (except impeachment)

    4. Convene Congress in special sessions

    5. Receive ambassadors

    6. Take care that the laws be faithfully executed

    7. Wield the "executive power"

    8. Appoint officials to lesser offices

  2. Powers shared with the Senate

    1. Make treaties

    2. Appoint ambassadors, judges and high officials

  3. Powers shared with Congress

    1. Approve legislation


State of the Union (SOTU)

White House Tapes: The President Is Calling

Supreme Court Nominations Not Confirmed

Most of Trump’s executive orders aren’t actually executive orders. Here’s why that matters.



V. Making Policy (Click on link to access notes.)



VI. Foreign Policy (Click on link to access notes.)














The National Bureaucracy

The executive branch consists of a number of different people/offices other than the president.NATIONAL BUREAUCRACY CARTOON



I. Vice President

Traditionally, the power of the vice president has depended on the president. The Constitution makes the VP the 'president' of the Senate, but he has no actual power in the Senate. The Constitution mainly provides for a VP who waits around for the president to die. Few VPs, then, are given any real power by their president. Most presidents don't like their VPs (since each was chosen to balance a ticket and has little in common with the president) and don't trust their VPs (since they assume the VP is out to replace him).



II. Cabinet

The cabinet is the collective heads of the various executive departments - the head of State, Defense, Commerce, etc. The cabinet was intended to come together and act as a source of wisdom for the president on policy matters. After all, you have in one group the leading authority of every subject in the country. However, the cabinet has never been a major source of policy because members tend to think in terms of departmental interests, rather than national interest.



III. White House Staff / Office

These are the presidential advisors that actually have offices in the White House. These people - the press secretary, the national security advisor, etc. - will always be the president's closest advisors since, unlike any other officials, they have daily access to the president.



IV. Executive Office of the President

These agencies report directly to the president and perform services directly for him but are not located in the White House. Their contact with the president is direct, but not as intimate as the White House staff. The Executive Office of the President includes such positions as the CIA director and the OMB director.

Agencies of the National Bureaucracy

Executive Office of the President

Council of Economic Advisers

Council on Environmental Quality

Domestic Policy Council

National Economic Council

National Security Council

Office of Administration

Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Office of Management and Budget

Office of National AIDS Policy

Office of National Drug Control Policy

Office of Science and Technology Policy

Office of the First Lady

Office of the Vice President of the US

President's Council on Sustainable Development

President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board

US Trade Representative

White House Office

Boards, Commissions and Committees

Administrative Committee of the Federal Register

American Battle Monuments Commission

Appalachian Regional Commission

Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board)

Arctic Research Commission

Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Interagency Coordinating Committee

Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation

Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

Chief Acquisition Officers Council

Chief Financial Officers Council

Chief Human Capital Officers Council

Chief Information Officers Council

Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee

Commission of Fine Arts

Commission on International Religious Freedom

Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission)

Committee for the Implementation of Textile Agreements

Committee on Foreign Investments in the US

Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

Delaware River Basin Commission

Denali Commission

Endangered Species Committee

Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board

Federal Executive Boards

Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council

Federal Financing Bank

Federal Geographic Data Committee

Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds

Federal Interagency Committee on Education

Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy

Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer

Federal Library and Information Center Committee

Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission

Harry S Truman Scholarship Foundation

Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor Commission

Indian Arts and Crafts Board

Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group

Interagency Council on Homelessness

Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin

J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board

James Madison Memorial Fellowship Foundation

Japan-US Friendship Commission

Joint Board for the Enrollment of Actuaries

Joint Fire Science Program

Marine Mammal Commission

Migratory Bird Conservation Commission

Mississippi River Commission

Morris K Udall Foundation: Scholarship and Excellence in National Environmental Policy

National Indian Gaming Commission

National Park Foundation

Northwest Power Planning Council

Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board

Presidio Trust

Regulatory Information Service Center

Social Security Advisory Board

Susquehanna River Basin Commission

Taxpayer Advocacy Panel

US Ability One Commission

US Election Assistance Commission

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Veterans Day National Committee

Vietnam Educational Foundation

White House Commission on Presidential Scholars: "Presidential Scholars Program"


Quasi-Official Agencies

Smithsonian Institution

State Justice Institute

US Institute of Peace


Other Advisory Boards

President's Intelligence Advisory Board and Intelligence Oversight Board

White House Council for Community Solutions

White House Initiative and President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

President's Global Development Council


The President's Cabinet

Vice President of the US

Department of State

Department of the Treasury

Department of Defense

Department of Justice

Department of the Interior

Department of Agriculture

Department of Commerce

Department of Labor

Department of Health and Human Services

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Department of Transportation

Department of Energy

Department of Education

Department of Veterans Affairs

Department of Homeland Security

The following positions have Cabinet-rank status:

White House Chief of Staff

Environmental Protection Agency

Office of Management and Budget

US Trade Representative

US Mission to the United Nations

Council of Economic Advisers

Small Business Administration


Executive Departments

Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Department of Commerce (DOC)

Department of Defense (DOD)

Department of Education (ED)

Department of Energy (DOE)

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Department of Justice (DOJ)

Department of Labor (DOL)

Department of State (DOS)

Department of the Interior (DOI)

Department of the Treasury

Department of Transportation (DOT)

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)


Independent Agencies and Government Corporations

Administrative Conference of the US

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation

African Development Foundation

AMTRAK (National Railroad Passenger Corporation)

Broadcasting Board of Governors

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

Commission on Civil Rights

Commodity Futures Trading Commission

Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC)

Corporation for National and Community Service

Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia

Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board

Director of National Intelligence

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Export-Import Bank of the USbureaucracy cartoon

Farm Credit Administration

Farm Credit System Insurance Corporation

Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)

Federal Election Commission (FEC)

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Federal Housing Finance Agency

Federal Labor Relations Authority

Federal Maritime Commission

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service

Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission

Federal Reserve System

Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board

Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

General Services Administration (GSA)

Institute of Museum and Library Services

Inter-American Foundation

Merit Systems Protection Board

Millennium Challenge Corporation

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

National Capital Planning Commission

National Council on Disability

National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)

National Endowment for the Arts

National Endowment for the Humanities

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

National Mediation Board

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK)

National Science Foundation (NSF)

National Transportation Safety Board

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)

Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission

Office of Compliance

Office of Government Ethics

Office of Personnel Management

Office of Special Counsel

Office of the Director of National Intelligence

Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive

Overseas Private Investment Corporation

Panama Canal Commission

Peace Corps

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

Postal Regulatory Commission

Railroad Retirement Board

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)

Selective Service System

Small Business Administration (SBA)

Social Security Administration (SSA)

Tennessee Valley Authority

US Trade and Development Agency

US Agency for International Development (USAID)

US International Trade Commission

US Postal Service (USPS)



V. Bureaucrats

the people who are responsible for implementation: putting specific policies into operation. The chief advantage of a bureaucracy is that is tends to standardize everything so that procedures and personnel can be easily transferred or replaced. Today over 85% of the government operates on the merit system. It is this vast group of people that add stability to the government. Presidents, congressman, judges may come and go but the bureaucracy remains the same. The chief disadvantage of a bureaucracy is that is tends to standardize everything so that people become numbers and problems become cases.  How far can the bureaucracy go in the name of efficiency?


Homeland Security Knowledge Base

Pentagon Official News














The National Courts


The Constitution created one national court - the Supreme Court - but did not mandate its structure. Instead the structure of the Supreme Court is determined by Congress. Originally, the Supreme Court had a chief justice and five associate justices. Today, it has a chief justice and 8 associate justices.

The Constitution also gave Congress the power to create any additional national courts necessary. Over time, the national court structure has evolved into what we have today, with 91 national district courts, 13 national appeals courts, the Supreme Court and a handful of specialized national courts.


Each level of the national court system has its own jurisdiction (types of cases a court is competent to hear and decide). The national district courts are courts of original jurisdiction, while the national appeals courts have appellate jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has both types of jurisdiction, depending on the case. It exercises its appellate jurisdiction when it hears an appeal from a lower court. When the Supreme Court hears a case directly it is exercising original jurisdiction.

                                                                 COMPARING NATIONAL AND STATE COURT SYSTEMS















Comparing National and State Court Systems


Types of Cases Heard

The Supreme Court hears three types of cases:

are cases appealed from lower federal courts

are cases appealed from state supreme courts

Rarely, the court hear cases that have not been previously heard by a lower court, such as between one state's government and another.

The justices decide which cases they will hear, about 80 each year. They decide another 50 without hearing arguments. The cases they choose usually address constitutional issues or federal law. The Court decides cases based on merit: cases in which two lower courts have issued contradictory decisions and issues that have broad impact on the country.

The Supreme Court gets about 7000 requests to review cases per year. Judicial review is the power of courts to declare acts of Congress, actions of national executives or laws enacted by any level of government to be unconstitutional. There are many cases that don't get heard. If the justices decide not to hear a case, the decision of the lower court stands.


What Happens When the Supreme Court Hears a Case?

Typically, all nine of the justices hear each case. Sometimes less than the full nine justices may hear a case due to illness, a vacant position, or if one justice recuses him/herself (chooses not to participate in a case) due to conflict of interest. A minimum of six of the nine judges must be present to make a decision on a case.

Each case is decided by majority vote. In case of a tie, the decision of the lower court is upheld.

Since the court only reviews cases which are appealed from a lower court, there is no evidence presented, and no witnesses are heard. There are simply briefs (written arguments) and oral argument by the parties. Each side has 30 minutes to present oral arguments, and the justices interrupt with questions while they are speaking.

After the attorneys are finished speaking, the justices meet in secret to discuss the case and come to a decision. No official record is kept of this discussion.

When the Supreme Court announces what they have decided in a case, they issue a formal document called a decision, and sometimes more than one.

The conclusion of the court is a majority opinion.

The justices that disagreed with the majority vote may issue one or more dissenting opinions, explaining their reasons for disagreeing.

Sometimes, one or more justices may be on the majority side but disagree with the reasoning behind the decision, and issue a concurring opinion.


Supreme Court Jurisdiction

Under the Constitution, federal courts exercise only judicial powers. The Supreme Court only considers cases that are justiciable:

o   the petitioner has standing to sue (stake in outcome): In an actual case or controversy, the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit also must have legal standing to ask the court for a decision. That means the plaintiff must have been aggrieved, or legally harmed in some way, by the defendant. This means that federal judges may interpret the law only through the resolution of actual legal disputes, referred to in Article III of the Constitution as “Cases or Controversies.” A court cannot attempt to correct a problem on its own initiative, or to answer a hypothetical legal question.

o   the case is ripe for decision (will have an impact on the country)

o   it is not moot (has not already been decided): it must present an ongoing problem for the court to resolve

o   it is not a political question (an issue with which the Congress or the President should deal)


The case must present a category of dispute that the law in question was designed to address, and it must be a complaint that the court has the power to remedy. In other words, the court must be authorized, under the Constitution or a federal law, to hear the case and grant appropriate relief to the plaintiff. The federal courts, thus, are courts of limited jurisdiction because they may only decide certain types of cases as provided by Congress or as identified in the Constitution .Although the details of the complex web of federal jurisdiction that Congress has given the federal courts is beyond the scope of this brief discussion, it is important to understand that there are two main sources of the cases coming before the federal courts: federal question jurisdiction and diversity jurisdiction.

In general, federal question jurisdiction arises in cases that involve the US government, the US Constitution or federal laws, or controversies between states or between the United States and foreign governments. A case that raises such a federal question may be filed in federal court. Examples of such cases might include a claim by an individual for entitlement to money under a federal government program such as Social Security, a criminal prosecution by the government that alleges someone violated a federal law, or a challenge to actions taken by a federal agency.

A diversity jurisdiction case also may be filed in federal court based on the diversity of citizenship of the litigants, such as between citizens of different states or between US citizens and those of another country. To ensure fairness to the out-of-state litigant, the Constitution provides that such cases may be heard in a federal court. An important limit to diversity jurisdiction is that only cases involving more than $75,000 in potential damages may be filed in a federal court. Claims below that amount may only be pursued in state court. Moreover, any diversity jurisdiction case regardless of the amount of money involved may be brought in a state court rather than a federal court.

Federal courts also have jurisdiction over all bankruptcy matters, which Congress has determined should be addressed in federal courts rather than the state courts. Through the bankruptcy process, individuals or businesses that can no longer pay their creditors may either seek a court-supervised liquidation of their assets, or they may reorganize their financial affairs and work out a plan to pay their debts.

Although federal courts are located in every state, they are not the only forum available to potential litigants. In fact, the great majority of legal disputes in American courts, civil or criminal, are addressed in the separate state court systems. State courts have jurisdiction over virtually all divorce and child custody matters, probate and inheritance issues, real estate questions, and juvenile matters, and they handle most criminal cases, contract disputes, traffic violations, and personal injury cases. In addition, certain categories of legal disputes may be resolved in special courts or entities that are part of the federal executive or legislative branches or state and federal administrative agencies.

                                                 HOW A CASE GETS TO THE SUPREME COURT


























A Primer on Supreme Court Procedures


Contrary to popular belief the Supreme Court is limited by a number of factors:Drawing of a Supreme Court Session

o   The Constitution sets certain outer limits by guaranteeing certain rights and liberties.

o   Past decisions – precedents -- must serve as general guidelines for current decisions.

o   The Supreme Court does not have any enforcement power.

o   The Supreme Court must rely on public acceptance of its rulings.

o   The public must be willing to follow a ruling even if it doesn't like it.

o   We can amend the Constitution, which could negate any ruling the Supreme Court may have made on any applicable issue.

The Right accuses the Supreme Court of being too liberal.

The Left accuses the Supreme Court of being too conservative.

If both Republican and Democratic presidents have been able to make their share of Supreme Court nominations over time, can we not say that, over time, we have had a balanced Supreme Court?

Virtual Tour of the Supreme Court    DANCING STAR TO DENOTE GOOD SITE

Rule of Law

Levels of the Federal Courts

Granting Certiorari

Judicial Independence

How Courts Work

Understanding the Federal Courts (PDF)

Interactive Supreme Court Timeline

State Courts vs. Federal Courts: Which court hears the case?

United States Supreme Court Cases

Landmark Supreme Court Rulings

Federalism Court Cases

First Amendment Court Cases

Religious Freedom Court Cases

Freedom of the Press Court Cases

Civil Rights Court Cases

Criminal Rights Court Cases

The Supreme Court’s Secret Power

The first Supreme Court was held on this day 226 years ago

Why November 8, 2016 is Judgment Day for the Supreme Court ... and Our Rights














Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

The American system of government is based on the concept that power flows from the people to the government.

Poster Save Freedom of Speech--Buy War Bonds

Poster fight for--Freedom From Fear

Poster Save Freedom of Worship--Buy War Bonds

Poster fight for--Freedom From Want

When the power of government is limited by a framework of fundamental written law,
that government is said to be constitutional.



I. Civil Liberties

...prohibitions against government interference in the lives of its citizens

Civil liberties refer to individuals in general situations.

my right to say what I please on the street

your right to worship in the church of your choice.

Civil liberties guarantee individuals freedom from government intrusion into their lives.

Government does not provide liberty but it can provide the condition of legal order necessary for liberty.

Government can get too strong without restraint -- thus the Bill of Rights -- but civil liberties are significant only if individuals use them.

Civil liberties are found in the Bill of Rights, Articles 1, 3 and 6, and in various Congressional laws -- for example, the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act.

Liberties Guaranteed in the US Constitution (before the Bill of Rights was added)

May not suspend writs of habeas corpus (except during invasion or rebellion).

Congress or states may not pass bills of attainder.

Congress and states may not pass ex post facto laws.

The right of trial by jury in criminal cases is guaranteed.

Citizens of each state are entitled to the privileges and immunities of the citizens of every other state.

No religious test or qualification for holding federal office are imposed.

States may not pass laws impairing the obligation of contracts.

Protections Afforded Citizens to Participate in the Political Process

Amendment 1: Freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly; right to petition government

Protections against Arbitrary Police and Court Action

Amendment 4: No unreasonable searches or seizures

Amendment 5: Grand jury indictment required to prosecute an individual for a serious crime, no double jeopardy (being tried twice for the same offense), forcing an individual to testify against himself prohibited, no loss of life, liberty or property without due process

Amendment 6: Right to a speedy, public, impartial trial with defense counsel and right to cross-examine witnesses

Amendment 7: Jury trials in civil suits where value exceeds $20

Amendment 8: No excessive bail or fines, no cruel and unusual punishments

Protections of States' Rights and Unnamed Rights of People

Amendment 9: Unlisted rights necessarily denied

Amendment 10: Powers not delegated to US or denied to states are reserved to states

Other Amendments

Amendment 2: Right to bear arms

Amendment 3: Troops not quartered in homes in peacetime

Although the Bill of Rights is the fundamental charter of American civil liberties, the Supreme Court determines how those rights are defined and applied.

Civil liberties were established at a time when the common perception was that individuals could take care of themselves if government left them alone. Gradually Americans became less optimistic about the individual's ability to take care of himself and more optimistic about the government's ability to take care of people.

Do you think this has led to our willingness to allow our freedoms to erode? Do we now say "the government can have my freedom of privacy if they will keep drugs off of my street"? If so, have our priorities shifted?


Know Your Rights: What to Do...

Cartoon Police Pull Over

...If You're Stopped by the Police

Think carefully about your words, movement, body language and emotions.

Don't get into an argument with the police.

Remember, anything you say or do can be used against you.

Keep your hands where the police can see them.

Don't run. Don't touch any police officer.

Don't resist even if you believe you are innocent.

Don't complain on the scene or tell the police they're wrong or that you're going to file a complaint.

Do not make any statements regarding the incident. Ask for a lawyer immediately upon your arrest.

Remember officers' badge and patrol car numbers.

Write down everything you remember ASAP.

Try to find witnesses and their names and phone numbers.

If you are injured, take photographs of the injuries as soon as possible, but make sure you seek medical attention first.

If you feel your rights have been violated file a written complaint with police internal affairs division or a civilian complaint board.

...If You're Stopped for Questioning

  1. It's not a crime to refuse to answer questions, but refusing to answer can make the police suspicious about you. If you are asked to identify yourself, see #2 at the bottom.

  2. Police may "pat-down" your clothing if they suspect a concealed weapon. Don't physically resist but make it clear that you don't consent to any further search.

  3. Ask if you are under arrest. If you are, you have a right to know why.

  4. Don't bad-mouth the police or run away even if you believe what is happening is unreasonable. That could lead to your arrest.

...If You're Stopped in Your Car

  1. Upon request, show them your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. In certain cases, your car can be searched without a warrant as long as the police have probable cause. To protect yourself later, you should make it clear that you do not consent to a search. It is not lawful for police to arrest you simply for refusing to consent to a search.

  2. If you're given a ticket, you should sign it; otherwise you can be arrested. You can always fight the case in court later.

  3. If you're suspected of drunk driving (DWI) and refuse to take a blood, urine or breath test, your driver's license may be suspended.

...If You're Arrested or Taken to a Police Station

  1. You have the right to remain silent and to talk to a lawyer before you talk to the police. Tell the police nothing except your name and address. Don't give any explanations, excuses or stories. You can make your defense later, in court, based on what you and your lawyer decide is best.

  2. Ask to see a lawyer immediately. If you can't pay for a lawyer, you have a right to a free one and should ask the police how the lawyer can be contacted. Don't say anything without a lawyer.

  3. Within a reasonable time after your arrest, or booking, you have the right to make a local phone call: to a lawyer, bail bondsman, a relative or any other person. The police may not listen to the call to the lawyer.

  4. Sometimes you can be released without bail or have bail lowered. Have your lawyer ask the judge about this possibility. You must be taken before the judge on the next court day after arrest.

  5. Do not make any decisions in your case until you have talked with a lawyer.

Search Warrant Cartoon



 ...In Your Home

  1. If the police knock and ask to enter your home, you don't have to admit them unless they have a warrant signed by a judge.

  2. However, in some emergency situations (like when a person is screaming for help inside or when the police are chasing someone) officers are allowed to enter and search your home without a warrant.

  3. If you're arrested, the police can search you and the area close by. If you are in a building, close by usually means just the room you are in.


  1. What you say to the police is always important. What you say can be used against you and can give the police an excuse to arrest you, especially if you bad-mouth a police officer.

  2. You must show your driver's license and registration when stopped in a car. Otherwise, you don't have to answer any questions if you are detained or arrested, with one important exception. The police may ask for your name if you have been properly detained and you can be arrested in some states for refusing to give it. If you reasonably fear that your name is incriminating, you can claim the right to remain silent, which may be a defense in case you are arrested anyway.

  3. You don't have to consent to any search of yourself, your car or your house. If you DO consent to a search, it can affect your rights later in court. If the police say they have a search warrant, ASK TO SEE IT.

  4. Do not interfere with or obstruct the police ... you can be arrested for it.

We all recognize the need for effective law enforcement, but we should also understand our own rights and responsibilities, especially in our relationships with the police. Everyone, including minors, has the right to courteous and respectful police treatment. If your rights are violated, don't try to deal with the situation at the scene. You can discuss the matter with an attorney afterwards or file a complaint with Internal Affairs or the Civilian Complaint Board.

Produced by the American Civil Liberties Union.



II. Civil Rights

...regulations permitting state interference to guarantee rights of full political participation to groups excluded by law, custom or condition of poverty

Civil rights are the freedom or opportunity to take part in government. They usually come about after a struggle leading to new laws that offer guarantees to a previously excluded group. America's history is one of the extension of opportunity to participate in politics to more and different groups of people.

Expansion of the franchise (right to vote) is an obvious example of civil rights struggles.

Amendment 15 gave African Americans right to vote.

Amendment 19 gave women right to vote.

Amendment 26 gave 18-to-20 year olds right to vote.

Specific civil rights are found in Amendments 13-15, 19, 24 and 26.

In addition, Congress has passed a number of Civil Rights Acts over the past several decades.

Although the civil rights movement of African Americans is the most obvious struggle, it is certainly not the only one. Other groups -- women, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, migrant workers, children, disabled -- have struggled and continue to struggle to increase their rights in the system.

Implicit Association Test    DANCING STAR TO DENOTE GOOD SITE

Homo Stereotypus--Wired for Trouble


Racism Then

Racism Now

Pew Report: 5 facts about race in America



Genocide in America


Making Connections

Reducing Prejudice

Freedom of Information Act





Copyright © 1996 Amy S Glenn
Last updated:   11/06/2017   1730

Creative Commons License