Separation of powers and checks and balances are central to the structure of the United States federal government. In this lesson, students will explore the origins of this balancing act. They will then apply this understanding in analyzing current examples of both principles in action.
Bill of Rights Institute lesson – The Battle for Balance
Article New York Times 1/31/17: Trump Nominates Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court
Article USA Today 2/3/17: Federal Judge Blocks Trump’s Travel Ban; DOJ to Challenge Decision
Article USA Today 12/16/15: Feds Ask Supreme Court to Stay Out of Lawsuit over Colorado Marijuana
- Before class or as a warm-up activity, have your students read Handout A: Background Essay – The Battle for Balance, from the Bill of Rights Institute lesson, The Battle of Balance and answer the questions in Handout G: Checks and Balances.
- Pass out copies of Handout D: United States Constitution to your class. Discuss their answers to Handout G to assess their understanding of separation of powers and checks and balances. Point out where these powers are outlined in the Constitution of the United States.
- Break your class into three groups, assigning each group one of the articles listed above. For each article, have your students answer the following questions. (also listed on Student Handout included with this lesson)
- What is the issue discussed in the article?
- What controversy has brought these branches of government into contact with each other?
- What powers of these branches are demonstrated in the article?
- Where in the Constitution is this power outlined?
- How does the debate in this case moderate the power of the branches involved?
- Wrap-up: Discuss how each of these checks and balances impact the United States. Sample discussion questions are listed below.
- Does the separation of powers and checks and balances make government more or less efficient? How?
- How do the separation of powers and checks and balances moderate public opinion? How was this demonstrated in both the immigration and marijuana articles above?
- Do you think the separation of powers is working as the framers intended?
- Do you think the separation of powers is a helpful or harmful to government action?
For additional information on the Separation of Powers, check out this short video by the Bill of Rights Institute.