The Roles of the Congress, the President, and the Courts

Standard 3.3:  The Roles of the Congress, the President, and the Courts

Describe the respective roles of each of the branches of government. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T3.3]

FOCUS QUESTION: What are the Roles of Congress, the President, and the Courts in the United States Government?

US Government Departments

The three branches of United States government - commonly referred to as Congress, the President, and the Federal Courts - have their own roles and powers, outlined in Describing the Three Branches, a website from the White House.

What are the key elements of those powers and roles? The modules for this standard examine that question from the standpoint of a) the excutive branch - the role of the FBI and the Post Office in American politics and whether a woman can be elected President; b) the legislative branch and the growing number of LGBTQIA legislators; and c) the judicial branch and what key Supreme Court decisions should every teenager know.

1. INVESTIGATE: The Executive Branch

The Executive Branch is headed by the President, who is the head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.  

The White House

The White House, Washington D.C.
"WhiteHouseSouthFacade" by  Matt H. Wade is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The President appoints the members of his Cabinet, including the Secretaries or heads of the fifteen executive departments such as the Secretary of State or the Secretary of the Interior.

The President is responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws passed by Congress, or if so decided, vetoing laws passed by Congress. The President is also responsible for handling affairs with foreign nations and issuing State of the Union addresses, which are typically done in front of a joint-congress in January.

There is more on the powers and functions of the Presidency in "Checks and Balances and the Power of the President" and "The War Powers of the President" in Standard 3.2 in this book.

In a trend that dates back to 1950, the average age of United States Presidents has been growing older, helping to create what some commentators call a gerontocracy, meaning a society governed by older people. Donald Trump was 70 after being elected in 2016, making him the oldest person ever inaugurated President. Joe Biden will be 78 if he is elected in 2020. The average age of members of Congress has also been getting older and the average age of the Supreme Court justices is 67-years-old.

However in most of the other democratic countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) the average age of heads of government is growing steadily younger, reported Ian Prasad Philbrick (Why Does America Have Old Leaders? July, 16 2020) in the New York Times. The average age in those countries is 54-years-old and there are many considerably younger leaders who are in their 30s and 40s, including in 2020, Sanna Marin of Finland, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and Justin Trudeau of Canada. To keep track, use a search engine to find "youngest head of state in the world today."

Suggested Learning Activities 

  • Evaluate Presidents' Actions and Statements
    • List of the 5 most important qualities of a President
    • Identify an important action or statement from a President to illustrate each of those 5 qualities
  • Analyze the Data
    • Part 1: Review Presidential performance ratings in the C-Span Presidential Historian Survey 2017
      • Some Presidents' ratings have gone up or down since 2000. Why might those ratings change in the minds of historians?
    • Part 2: Review the ages of world and U.S. leaders 
      • How would you explain the aging of U.S. political leadership and what do you think are its consequences?
      • What are potential advantages and possible drawbacks of older political leaders?

Online Resources for the President and the Executive Branch

1.1 UNCOVER: The FBI and the Post Office in American Politics

The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is among the most widely known and historically controversial of all federal government executive branch agencies. It was created by executive order on July 26, 1908 by Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte (grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte's brother) as a special detective force within the U.S. Department of Justice.  

Wanted by FBI
"Wanted By The FBI" | Public Domain

The agency was initially called the Bureau of Investigation and charged with enforcing the Mann Act (also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act). At that time, agents were involved in the Palmer Raids in 1919 that were part of the First Red Scare period in American politics. J. Edgar Hoover became director in 1924 and the agency was re-named the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Under Hoover’s leadership, the FBI was involved in some of the most controversial political dramas of the 20th century, including the Osage Murders, the Rosenberg Spy Case, and the surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr.  

The FBI has a documented history of being selectively used against African Americans and political dissidents (Weiner, 2008). Three sites - The FBI: A Brief History from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI History from Syracuse University, and The FBI in American Politics - provide more about the agency’s history.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Research and Report on FBI Surveillance Activities
    • Search FBI records online through a section of the agency’s website known as FBI Records: The Vault that contains 6,700 documents including materials on civil rights, political figures, anti-war protestors and other citizens.
    • Create an infographic or presentation detailing key information from the FBI records about one of the following celebrities and political activists?
      • John Lennon
      • Helen Keller 
      • Jazz Musicians including Max Roach, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole
      • Eleanor Roosevelt from PBS American Experience and from the Vault
      • Marilyn Monroe 

The Post Office in American Politics

The Post Office - also known as the United States Postal Service (USPS) - is an agency in the executive branch of the United States government. It is the only organization, public or private, that delivers mail and packages to every single address in the country, from the largest metropolitan districts to the smallest communities (Postal Facts: Sizing It Up). Some private companies actually pay the Post Office to handle deliveries to more remote locations.

US Mail Dogsled Team in Alaska

Delivering the Mail by Dog Sled in Alaska, 1906
United States Mail dogsled team, Nome, April 8, 1906
by Frank H. Nowell | Public Domain

In 2019 alone, the Postal Service delivered 143 billion pieces of mail to 160 million addresses. (The United States Postal Service Delivers the Facts).

The history of the Post Office is a fascinating one, stretching back to the beginnings of the nation. Benjamin Franklin was the first Postmaster in 1775. The first postage stamps were issued in 1847. The Pony Express started in 1860, lasting only 19 months before being made obsolete by the transcontinental telegraph. Zip codes appeared in 1963. The first Post Office iPhone app in 2009. 

Mail boxes

Mailboxes for FedEx, University of California, UPS and United States Postal Service
by Minesweeper | Public Domain

There are important hidden histories and untold stories as well: 

The Post Office today finds itself facing increased competition from private firms (FedEx, UPS, DHL), large budgetary shortfalls (the agency was $11 billion in debt at the end of 2019), and heightened political debates about its ability to handle the demands of dramatic increases in mail-in voting resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Suggested Learning Activities 

Critical Inquiry Question: What is the best way to save the Post Office?

  1. Read each proposal and discuss the pros and cons of each.  
  2. Please record at least one pro and one con in each of the columns after each proposal.  
  3. With your partner or partners, create your own proposal, add it to the document and list the pros and cons.
  4. Rank the proposals listed below (including your own) from strongest (5) to weakest (1).  Please be prepared to justify your rankings by answering: Why This is a Good Idea/Why This is Not a Good Idea.
    • Increase Funding by Congress.
    • Eliminate Saturday mail deliveries.
    • Invest employee retirement funds in the stock market.
    • Raise prices on stamps and delivery of packages.
    • Your Plan: 
      Link to the Table.

5. Please answer the following questions in complete sentences:  What is the best way to save the Post Office?  Why?

Groupwork: Have students as partners or small groups present their plans and rankings to the class. Encourage questions and discussion. Include a visual (for example students place their rankings and a visual representation of their plan on the back bulletin board. After each group has presented, ask students to complete #5 on their own in order to process

1.2 ENGAGE: Can a Woman Be Elected President or Vice-President of the United States?

In 2020, women—who currently outnumber men in the U.S. population—hold less than one-third of the nation’s elected political offices (Dittmar, 2019), and no woman has been elected President.

That situation may be changing. More women than ever ran for and were elected to political office in 2018. Still, according to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the United States ranked 77 out of 189 nations in the world in percentage of women in national legislatures (Percentage of Women in National Parliaments, 2019). Rwanda (61%), Cuba (53%), Bolivia (53%) and Mexico (48%) have the highest percentage of women in political office.

There are presently 102 women (out of 425 members) in the U.S. House of Representatives. There are 25 (out of 100 members) in the U.S. Senate. Historically,

At the state level, approximately 2,118 women serve in the 50 state legislatures in 2019, making up 28.7 percent of all state legislators nationwide. Nevada became the first state legislature to have a majority of women legislators in 2019.

But no woman has ever been elected President or Vice-President. This stark fact raises the question: "What needs to happen for a woman to become President?"

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution sets the requirements for someone to become President or Vice-President: that person must be a natural born citizen of the United States, at least 35 years old and have been a resident of the country for 14 years. Kamala Harris, the 2020 Democratic Party Vice-Presidential nominee was born in Oakland, California.

Victoria Woodhull Ran

Victoria Woodhull Ran for President in 1872 
"Portrait photograph of Victoria Claflin Woodhull" by Mathew Brady | Public Domain

Victoria Woodhull (1872), Margaret Chase Smith (1964), Shirley Chisholm, Pat Schroeder (1988) and Hillary Clinton (2008 & 2016) were all women who unsuccessfully ran for President. Women who actively campaigned for President in 2020 included Senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren; Representative Tulsi Gabbard; and author Marianne Williamson. Three women have been major party Vice-Presidential nominees: Geraldine Ferraro (Democrat: 1984); Sarah Palin (Republican: 2008); and Kamala Harris (2020: Democrat).

Many historians believe that Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, second wife of Woodrow Wilson, was actually the nation's first woman President from 1919 to 1921.  

Edith Bolling Galt Wilson

Photograph of Edith Bolling Galt Wilson
"Edith Bolling Galt Wilson" | No Known Copyright Restrictions

Heavily involved with her husband's Presidency, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson accompanied him to Europe while the Allies negotiated a peace deal to end World War I. She came back to the United States to campaign for Senate approval of the peace treaty and the League of Nations Covenant. When President Wilson had a stroke in October 1919, she took over many of the routine duties and details of the government. Although she referred to her role as her "stewardship," she was essentially the nation’s chief executive until her husband’s second term concluded in March of 1921. 

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Draw a Conclusion
    • Based on the historical evidence, would you designate Edith Bolling Galt Wilson as the nation’s first woman President? Why or Why Not?
    • For more on her role and why some call her America's first woman President, visit Edith Wilson from the American President site at the University of Virginia. There is more information at Edith Bolling Galt Wilson from the PBS film, Woodrow Wilson.
  • Dialog and Debate
    • Is There a “Jill Robinson Effect” for women candidates?
      • Looking at women who seek to enter jobs traditionally held by men, political scientists Sarah Anzia and Christopher Berry have identified what they call the “Jill Robinson Effect” — named after Jackie Robinson, the first African American baseball player in the modern era who became one of the game’s biggest stars after breaking the color barrier in 1947. “Robinson had to be better than almost any white player in order to overcome the prejudice of owners, players, and fans,” Anzia and Berry wrote (2010).
        • Do you think that women who go into male-dominated jobs face prejudice and feel the need to be better than everyone else?
        • What about men who go into jobs that are predominantly held by women?
        • Do you have plans to pursue a career in a male or female-dominant field?

Online Resources for Women Running for President and Other Political Offices

2. INVESTIGATE: The Legislative Branch

The Legislative Branch consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate which make up the United States Congress. Congress has authority to make and enact laws and declare war on foreign nations. For a brief overview, visit “How Congress Works” from Michigan Congressman Tim Walberg. Locate Members of Congress at Congress.gov from the Library of Congress or use Congress in Your Pocket from the App Store.

US Capitol

United States Capitol
"US capitol building" by Raul654 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

House of Representatives

The House of Representatives has 435 voting members, each of whom is elected every two years. There are 6 non-voting members, representing Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and four U.S. territories. Each state is given a number of representatives directly proportionate to the population of that state as determined by census: the largest state, California has 53 representatives while Alaska, Delaware Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming have just one. The average member of the House represents 747,184 people, many more than the representatives of any other country’s national legislature. To have each member represent 50,000 people would require expanding the House to about 6,489 representatives  (“The Case for Massively Expanding the US House of Representatives, in One Chart,” VOX, June 4, 2018).

A Speaker of the House is elected by the members of the House of Representatives and is third in line for the presidency.  The House has the exclusive power to impeach the President and elect the President in the case of an electoral vote deadlock or if no candidate receives a majority of electoral votes. This has happened twice before, in 1800 and 1824.


The Senate is made up of 100 elected members, two from each state. Senators are elected for six-year terms and must be members of the state they represent. The Vice President presides over the daily meetings of the Senate. Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, Senators were elected not by popular vote, but by state legislatures (United States Senate website).

It has long been assumed that the design of the Senate resulted from a compromise to protect the interests of states with small populations who would have fewer seats in the House of Representatives. Newer scholarship contends that the two Senators for every state requirement was intended to protect the interests of southern slave-holders, for as James Madison noted at the time that the real difference of interests “lay, not between large and small but between Northern and Southern States. The institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination” (quoted in Robin, 2020).

Now, in the 21st century, the Senate “entrenches multiple types of inequality,” contends political scientist Todd Tucker (2019, p. 4). Senators from states with small populations (Wyoming and Vermont have the fewest people) represent millions fewer people than Senators from states with large populations (California and Texas have the most people). For instance, Wyoming’s 583,000 residents elect the same number of senators as does California’s 40 million people. In addition, people living in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the other U.S. territories have no voting representation in the Senate. The current Senate is disproportionately richer, whiter, and more male than the population of the country as a whole.  

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Engage in Civic Action
    • Votetocracy, the People's Congress allows everyday citizens to "vote" on legislation pending in Congress.
    • What legislation did you vote on and how did you decide how to vote?

Online Resources for the Legislative Branch

2.1 UNCOVER: Electing LGBTQIA Legislators 

In 1974, Kathy Kozachenko, running as a Human Rights Party candidate for the Ann Arbor Michigan City Council, became the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in the United States.

Tammy Baldwin

United States Senator Tammy Baldwin, 2013
by Amy Mathers | Public Domain

One year later, Elaine Noble, an openly gay candidate was elected state representative in Massachusetts. Harvey Milk, a gay man, was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. In 1993, Althea Garrison, a closeted trans woman was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Stacie Laughton, a self-identified trans woman was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 2012.

Since those firsts, LGBTQIA politicians have transformed United States politics, bringing gender equality and transgender rights to the forefront of people’s attention and changing the definition of who can and should be elected to public office. By 2019, an LGBTQIA person has been elected to public office in all 50 states. Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana was a prominent candidate for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for President.

Electing LGBTQIA individuals to political office is part of a much larger and wide-ranging shift in public attitudes toward gay, lesbian, and transgender people. What events and personalities helped bring about these changes?

In an interview for the NPR Hidden Brain podcast, sociologists Michael Rosenfeld and Mahazarin Banaji offer the following answers: Gay people became more visible as more people came out of the closet in the 1980s and 1990s; television shows began featuring realistic gay characters, the AIDS crisis and the marriage equality movement further raised awareness of gay issues and gay rights (NPR, 2019). The initiation of LGBT History Month in 1994, the beginning of National Coming Out Day in 1988 and the National Park Service’s 2016 report on historic LBGT sites in the United States further propelled changes in attitudes (Waxman, 2019). At the same time, the FBI has reported a rise in gender-identity hate crimes in the country. In many schools, LGBTQIA students face hostile hallways of hateful language, bullying, and threats of assault.

Suggested Learning Activities

  • State Your View 
    • What changes in society and culture do you think most influenced changes in the public view of LGBTQIA people and opened the door for electing gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals to public office?

Online Resources for LGBTQIA Politicians 

3. INVESTIGATE:  A Dual Court System/The Federal Judicial Branch and State Courts

The Judicial Branch of the federal government is made up of federal courts and the Supreme Court.  

Contemplation of Justice Statue

Contemplation of Justice Statue by James Earle Fraser on the Supreme Court Building's main steps
"Contemplation Of Justice" | Public Domain

In addition to the Supreme Court, there are 94 federal district courts and 12 courts of appeals in the federal court system (Introduction to the Federal Court System). The nine Justices of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. There is typically one Chief Justice and other Associate Justices. A Justice can only be removed by impeachment from the House and conviction from the Senate.

The federal courts hold the power of interpreting the law, determining the constitutionality of that law, and then applying it to individual cases. Once a decision is made by the Supreme Court, lower courts must apply that decision.

Chart of the Supreme Court Introduction
"Infographic: How the Supreme Court Works" | Public Domain

The Supreme Court has both original jurisdiction (in cases involving conflicts between states) and appellate jurisdiction (in cases involving the United States and a state; cases involving states against citizens; and cases concerning ambassadors). Original jurisdiction means the Supreme Court gets to rule first and finally on a case. Appellate jurisdiction means the Supreme Court gets to either accept or modify the rulings of lower courts. The United States Courts' Educational Resources website provides more information.

For more information, link to Do Supreme Court Dissents Make a Difference to the Law?

The Supreme Court has not always had 9 justices. Originally there were 6, a Chief Justice and 5 Associate Justices. A 7th justice was added in 1807, two more in 1837, and a 10th briefly in 1863. The Judiciary Act of 1869 set the current number of seats on the Court at nine (Why Does The Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?). Then in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt, tired of opposition to New Deal policies by what he regarded as the "nine old men" of the Supreme Court, asked Congress to appoint six new justices to the Court, an action now known as the court-packing plan. A constitutional crisis ensued that was averted only when one Justice began voting to uphold New Deal legislation and another retired. Roosevelt would eventually appoint nine new justices between 1937 and 1943, but the total number of justices was never increased beyond nine (When Franklin Roosevelt Clashed with the Supreme Court--And Lost).

State Courts and Racial Disparities

The United States also has a system of state courts that function along side federal courts. "State courts are courts of "general jurisdiction". They hear all the cases not specifically selected for federal courts. Just as the federal courts interpret federal laws, state courts interpret state laws" (quoted in State Courts vs. Federal Courts, Judicial Learning Center, 2019). State courts hear both civil and criminal cases based on the laws of the state. Since federal courts are limited in their role, most disputes are handled in state courts.

Try a Student Challenge from the Judicial Learning Center to decide whether a case would be heard in state or federal court.

Despite the ideals of impartial justice, racial differences in sentencing in state courts and the larger criminal justice system continue to be an enormous problem. Racial disparities occur from the dissimilar treatment of similarly situated people based on race by the criminal justice system (Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System, The Sentencing Project, 2008). Looking a state courts in Massachusetts, a study by the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School found that Blacks were imprisoned at a rate of 7.9 times that of Whites; Latinx 4.9 times that of Whites (Racial Disparities in the Massaachusetts Criminal System, September 2020).

Suggested Learning Activities

  • Play Online iCivics Games
    • To experience the court system in action, play Court Quest, a free online game from iCivics where players explore our state and federal court systems by helping their passengers navigate through the American judicial system.
    • iCivics offers free web-based games that teach schoolchildren learn about how courts and the law function in a democratic society. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was one of the founder of the site.
      • "Do I Have a Right” places student game players as members of a law firm that advise clients about what amendment to the constitution applies to problems presented by individuals who walk into their law office.
      • "Supreme Decision” asks students to serve as a law clerk for a justice who must write an opinion in First Amendment case (Note: flash is required to play).

Online Resources for the Judicial Branch

3.1 ENGAGE:  What Supreme Court Cases Should All Teenagers Know?

In 1966, a 14-year-old Arizona youth, Gerald Francis Gault, was arrested for allegedly making an obscene phone call. His parents were not notified by police at the time of the arrest. Gault was brought before a juvenile court judge and sentenced to seven years in a state industrial school detention facility, an adult convicted of the same offense would have received only a 60 day sentence. In appealing the decision, Gault contended that he did not receive due process of law under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Inscription on the Supreme Court

Equal Justice Under Law
Inscription at the front of the United States Supreme Court
"EqualJusticeUnderLaw" by UpstateNYer is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In a 1967 landmark In re Gault decision, the Court agreed, establishing the rule that juveniles facing delinquency hearings have a constitutional right to an attorney as well as the right to receive written notice of charges against them, the opportunity to call witnesses, the opportunity to cross-examine those testifying against them, and protection against self-incrimination. The due process rights of adults, the Court said, apply to teenagers as well.You can learn more about the case from the NPR podcast “Gault Case Changed Juvenile Law.”

In re Gault is one of a number of Supreme Court cases that directly impacted the lives and rights of middle and high school students. We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students by Jamin B. Raskin (2015) is an excellent source of information. What cases should all teenagers know in order to more fully understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens of the United States?

Suggested Learning Activities

Standard 3.3 Conclusion

The Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches have specific roles and powers within the American system of government. INVESTIGATE outlined the functions of the President (executive), the Congress (legislative), and the Supreme Court (judicial). UNCOVER explored the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), an executive branch agency as well as the history of electing of LGBTQIA legislators. ENGAGE asked two questions: a) Can a woman be elected President? and b) What Supreme Court cases should all teenagers know?