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Judges: Separation of Powers Protects Bill of Rights

In a new, five-minute video, federal judges offer insights into their thinking about the separation of powers and describe how healthy tensions among the branches have a stabilizing effect on democracy. The judges also share their respect for and commitment to this founding principle, which has an impact on everyday American life.

Court Shorts: Separation of Powers is being released in conjunction with Bill of Rights Day, Dec. 15, the day in 1791 that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution were ratified. As the video illustrates, all three branches play a role in preserving constitutional liberties.  

The video is for teens through adults who want to understand current events through the lens of the Constitution’s framework for how Congress, the Presidency, and the Judiciary are designed to relate to each other, particularly when dealing with contentious issues. 

To make the point, the judges give an example of how the separation of powers protects First Amendment freedoms to take an unpopular stand and to express views that others don’t share. They reference the flag-burning case Texas v. Johnson and how a law banning flag desecration touched off a controversy that all three branches grappled with in the 1980s. 

For many, terms like separation of powers and checks and balances are dusty terms they have forgotten or thought they would never need to know. In fact, according to a 2018 Annenberg survey, only 33 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government (they are legislative, executive, and judicial, as described in Articles I, II, and III of the Constitution).

“All of these parts, working together, create a team effort which really aids our form of government and creates its stability,” says U.S. District Court Judge Ann Montgomery, of the District of Minnesota.

Court Shorts is a video series on courts and the Constitution that will include installments on the rule of law, judicial independence, and other pillars of our democracy. For more information and examples of how the separation of powers matters in daily life, find an activity for the stolen valor case U.S. v. Alvarez; a civil discourse discussion starter; and a podcast on separation of powers.

Related Topics: Public Education