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Separation of Powers in Action - U.S. v. Alvarez

The U.S. Constitution establishes three separate but equal branches of government: the legislative branch (makes the law), the executive branch (enforces the law), and the judicial branch (interprets the law). The Framers structured the government in this way to prevent one branch of government from becoming too powerful, and to create a system of checks and balances.

Under this system of checks and balances, there is an interplay of power among the three branches. Each branch has its own authority, but also must depend on the authority of the other branches for the government to function.

U.S. v. Alvarez is an excellent example of how the three branches each exercise their authority.

In a Nutshell

  • The Legislative Branch – Congress – passed the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, punishing those who misrepresent that they have received high military honors.
  • The Judicial Branch – the Supreme Court of the United States – ruled in 2012 that the Act was unconstitutional because it infringed on the right to free speech protected by the First Amendment.
  • The Executive Branch – the Pentagon and the President – took action within a month of the Supreme Court's decision establishing a government-funded national database of medal citations – phased in over time – to enable verification of military honors.
  • The Legislative Branch – Less than a year after Alvarez was decided, Congress responded with legislation that sought to remedy the constitutional problems in the 2005 legislation, which the Supreme Court decided in U.S. v. Alvarez were in violation of the First Amendment.

    The new legislation continues the prohibition on false claims of military honors in instances outside the protection of the First Amendment. However, the Stolen Valor Act of 2013 narrowed the original legislation in the following ways:
    • Repealed the prohibition against wearing such awards without legal authorization.
    • Limited the prohibition to wearers who act "fraudulently" and "with intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit."
    • Limited the prohibition to the Congressional Medal of Honor and certain, specified decorations or medals.