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Separation of Powers in Action

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 – Congress – is considering legislation that is more narrow than the Stolen Valor Act of 2005. The Stolen Valor Act of 2011 would make it a federal misdemeanor for anyone to benefit financially from false claims about military service, records, or awards. That would include receiving health care benefits, government contracts, or jobs reserved for veterans. The modified version of the law provides punishments for those seeking to profit strictly from false military service. Follow the progress of the Stolen Valor Act of 2011.