Grades 7-9: Separation of Powers
Understanding Checks & Balances
Students will use an Act of Congress and a Supreme Court case to explore the checks and balances of the U.S. system of government.
Make enough copies of the handout for the entire class.
(Download handout as a .pdf)
Powers of the Legislative Branch
Tell students that in December 2000, Congress passed an Act called the Children's Internet Protection Act. The Act requires public schools and public libraries to install filter programs on their computers to screen out websites that are not appropriate for children under the age of 18. Such filter programs block out obscene websites but can also block many other sites, such as those dealing with medical conditions, that are not obscene. Under the Act, schools or libraries that refuse to install such filter programs will not receive federal funds.
1. What Article of the Constitution gives Congress the power to pass laws?
Answer: Article I
2. What are the checks on Congress? That is, what limits the ability of Congress to pass laws or implement laws?
- The President (head of the executive branch) can veto a proposed law. Congress can overturn the veto by a two-thirds majority in both houses.
- The judiciary has the power to declare that a law is unconstitutional. If the court declares a law unconstitutional, then the law cannot be enforced.
- There is also an internal check on Congress—in the fact that there are two houses composing Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each house has a role in making sure that the other does not pass unreasonable laws.
Powers of the Executive
Ask students to imagine that the President used his power of veto to prevent the Act being passed. [This did not actually happen to this Act].
3. What Article of the Constitution gives the President the power to veto laws?
Answer: Article II
4. What limits the ability of the President to veto laws?
Answer: Congress can override the President's veto if it has a two-thirds majority in both houses.
Powers of the Judiciary
After the Children's Internet Protection Act was passed, the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of the Act. They argued that the law's requirement to use filtering software forced libraries to restrict free speech. The right to freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
5. What Article of the Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to decide whether any law is constitutional?
Answer: Trick question. The Constitution does not expressly give the Supreme Court the power to decide whether laws are unconstitutional. This power, called the power of judicial review, was established in the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803. (More about Marbury v. Madison )
6. What are the checks on the judiciary's power of judicial review?
- Judges are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate.
- Congress has the power to initiate amendment of the Constitution.
7. Why should the Supreme Court have the power to say whether a law passed by Congress or presidential act is constitutional?
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