Checks and Balances

Class Notes: How does our system of checks and balances help protect our rights?

As we have already seen our Constitution is very much a reaction to the events that came before it. Our founding fathers had several goals, foremost among those goals was to avoid tyranny. In order to do this several different systems were set up to prevent the abuse of power. Federalism was one of these systems. Federalism was designed to balance the power of the national and State governments and thus limit the powers of the national government. Jefferson and others were convinced that state government was closer to the people and thus more democratic.

Another system that was developed was the system of checks and balances. Checks and balances, or the separation of powers, is based upon the philosophy of Baron de Montesquieau. In this system the government was to be divided into three branches of government, each branch having particular powers.

Legislative Branch Makes the laws
Executive Branch Enforces and carries out the laws.
Judicial Branch Interprets the laws

Not only does each branch of the government have particular powers each branch has certain powers over the other branches. This is done to keep them balanced and to prevent one branch form ever gaining too much power. For example:

Congress may pass laws……..but the President can veto them.

The President can veto laws…….but Congress can override the veto with a 2/3 vote.

The President and Congreess may agree on a law……….but the Supreme Court can declare a law unconstitutional.

The President can appoint Judges and other government officials…….but Senate must approve them.

Supreme Court judges have life terms…….but they can be impeached .

As you can see there are many ways (there are many more than listed) that the Constitution balances power. Real life conflicts that test the system have occurred throughout history. These checks and balances are used on a regular basis.

  • After the Civil War President Andrew Johnson vetoed over 20 bills.
  • After the Civil War Congress overrode overrode over 20 Presidential vetoes!
  • In1987 President Ronald Reagan appointed Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, his nomination was defeated.
  • In 1935 and 1936 the Supreme Court declared the NIRA and then the AAA (two New Deal programs passed during the Roosevelt administration) unconstitutional.
  • In 1918 Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, a peace treaty ending World War I that President Wilson had worked very hard on.

There are thousands of examples of checks and balances at work. As we continue this year we will examine these and many more.

How Does Our System of Checks and Balances Help Protect Our Rights? An Essay

In any democratic society, the protection of individual rights and the preservation of liberty stand as paramount objectives. To achieve these, the United States, among other democracies, has instituted a system of checks and balances within its constitutional framework. This system, designed to ensure no one branch of government gains absolute power, is crucial for safeguarding the rights of citizens from potential governmental overreach. This essay will elucidate the structure and mechanisms of checks and balances and demonstrate how they collectively work to protect our rights.

Historical Origins and the Framers’ Intent

The concept of checks and balances is not novel. Drawing inspiration from European political philosophers like Montesquieu, the framers of the U.S. Constitution aimed to prevent the resurgence of tyranny. They recognized that consolidating power within one entity was a recipe for potential abuse, and hence they meticulously divided powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

Division of Power and Its Implication

The primary mechanism by which checks and balances protect rights is through the separation of powers. The Constitution clearly delineates distinct powers to each branch:

The Legislative Branch:

(Congress) has the power to create laws, appropriate funds, and declare war.

The Executive Branch:

(Presidency) is responsible for enforcing and implementing laws, conducting foreign policy, and overseeing the vast machinery of the federal government.

The Judicial Branch:

(Courts) interprets the constitutionality of laws, resolves disputes, and ensures justice.

While each branch has its respective domains, their functions are not wholly independent, enabling them to monitor and influence one another.

Mechanisms of Checks and Balances

Several mechanisms are built into the Constitution to ensure that no branch oversteps its bounds:

1. Veto Power and Legislative Override:

While the President can veto legislation, Congress can override this veto with a two-thirds majority, ensuring laws are not passed or blocked merely at the whim of the executive.

2. Judicial Review:

Established in *Marbury v. Madison*, the courts can determine the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress or actions taken by the executive. This ensures that laws infringing on individual rights can be struck down.

3. Appointment and Confirmation:

The President nominates officials and judges, but the Senate must confirm them, ensuring a collaborative process in selecting key government figures.

4. Impeachment:

Congress has the power to impeach and remove the President, Vice President, and federal judges for high crimes and misdemeanors. This serves as a powerful tool against gross misconduct.

5. Executive Orders and Judicial Interpretation:

While the President can issue directives or executive orders, these are subject to judicial review. Courts have the power to interpret these orders and their compliance with the Constitution.

Checks and Balances in Protecting Rights

The beauty of this intricate web is its inherent design to protect individual rights. If any branch endeavors to impinge on these rights, the others can step in to counteract. For instance, during the 1960s, when state laws and executive actions in southern states attempted to perpetuate racial segregation and limit voting rights, federal courts consistently struck down such laws, effectively protecting the rights of marginalized communities.

Moreover, when the executive branch tried to overreach during periods like the Watergate scandal, Congress took investigative and corrective actions. Similarly, while the judicial branch has lifetime appointments to ensure independence, the very process of Senate confirmation ensures that judges uphold the broad values of the society they serve.

Contemporary Relevance and Challenges

In today’s polarized environment, the system of checks and balances becomes even more pivotal. While one could argue that partisan politics sometimes stifles the effectiveness of this system, it’s evident that it continues to serve as a deterrent against potential abuses. Whether it’s the courts blocking executive orders they find unconstitutional or Congress exercising its oversight role over the executive, the gears of this system continue to turn.

However, challenges persist. The increasing polarization means that the Senate confirmation process can become excessively partisan, potentially undermining the independence of the judiciary. Also, the broad use of executive orders can sometimes bypass the legislative process, although they remain subject to judicial scrutiny.


In essence, the system of checks and balances is a testament to the forethought of the framers of the Constitution. By ensuring that power isn’t concentrated and creating avenues for each branch to monitor the others, they crafted a durable system that has, for over two centuries, protected the rights of American citizens. While not without its challenges and imperfections, this system remains a bulwark against potential governmental overreach and a shining example of the importance of institutional design in preserving liberty and rights.