Mapping Current Events in Our Legal Structure
This series uses the following "map" - an outline of our government structure - to put into context a different current event each week. Scroll the topics at the bottom of the page to see which topic areas we have mapped thus far.
The basic map, explained:
The Constitution is at the top because it is the highest authority. The three branches of federal government each have their own roles and abilities, so they are listed just below. The state governments also have their own spheres of governing, but they can be trumped by the federal government or the Constitution. Thus, the states are listed below the federal branches. See below for more information of each element.
The Constitution started it all. It defined our branches of government, and it protects our fundamental rights. Statements in the Constitution trump all other laws and policies.
Congress makes federal laws that carry out the Constitution. They are published in the United States Code (U.S. Code or U.S.C.). These can be changed or repealed by Congress itself. They can be overruled by the Constitution.
president and Executive agencies
The executive agencies were created through acts of Congress. The President is the Chief Executive and thus controls the agencies, as well as appoints people to lead them. The agencies write rules ("regulations") that have the force of law, but they cannot overstep the boundaries of the legislation (federal laws from the legislative branch) that give them authority.
The Supreme Court is the highest authority deciding disputes. Disputes meeting certain "federal" characteristics (defined in the Constitution) may start in federal trial courts ("District Courts") and they may be appealed to appeals courts ("Circuit Courts of Appeals"). The last appeal is to the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court decides whether or not it will hear a given appeal.
The states have control over certain subject areas (granted by the Constitution). Federal laws trump state laws if they come into conflict. States may put additional restrictions on citizens, or give additional benefits to citizens, as long as those restrictions do not conflict with the Constitution or with federal laws or regulations.