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State governments of the United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the United States, state governments are institutional units exercising functions of government at a level below that of the federal government. Each U.S. state's government holds legislative, executive, and judicial authority over[1] a defined geographic territory. The United States comprises 50 states: 9 of the Thirteen Colonies that were already part of the United States at the time the Constitution took effect in 1789, 4 that ratified the Constitution after its commencement, plus 37 that have been admitted since by Congress as authorized under Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution.[2]

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Have you ever wondered who has the authority to make laws or punish people who break them? When we think of power in the United States, we usually think of the President, but he does not act alone. In fact, he is only one piece of the power puzzle and for very good reason. When the American Revolution ended in 1783, the United States government was in a state of change. The founding fathers knew that they did not want to establish another country that was ruled by a king, so the discussions were centered on having a strong and fair national government that protected individual freedoms and did not abuse its power. When the new constitution was adopted in 1787, the structure of the infant government of the United States called for three separate branches, each with their own powers, and a system of checks and balances. This would ensure that no one branch would ever become too powerful because the other branches would always be able to check the power of the other two. These branches work together to run the country and set guidelines for us all to live by. The legislative branch is described in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Many people feel that the founding fathers put this branch in the document first because they thought it was the most important. The legislative branch is comprised of 100 U.S. Senators and 435 members in the U.S. House of Representatives. This is better known as the U.S. Congress. Making laws is the primary function of the legislative branch, but it is also responsible for approving federal judges and justices, passing the national budget, and declaring war. Each state gets two Senators and some number of Representatives, depending on how many people live in that state. The executive branch is described in Article 2 of the Constitution. The leaders of this branch of government are the President and Vice President, who are responsible for enforcing the laws that Congress sets forth. The President works closely with a group of advisors, known as the Cabinet. These appointed helpers assist the President in making important decisions within their area of expertise, such as defense, the treasury, and homeland security. The executive branch also appoints government officials, commands the armed forces, and meets with leaders of other nations. All that combined is a lot of work for a lot of people. In fact, the executive branch employs over 4 million people to get everything done. The third brand of the U.S. government is the judicial branch and is detailed in Article 3. This branch is comprised of all the courts in the land, from the federal district courts to the U.S. Supreme Court. These courts interpret our nation's laws and punish those who break them. The highest court, the Supreme Court, settles disputes among states, hears appeals from state and federal courts, and determines if federal laws are constitutional. There are nine justices on the Supreme Court, and, unlike any other job in our government, Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, or for as long as they want to stay. Our democracy depends on an informed citizenry, so it is our duty to know how it works and what authority each branch of government has over its citizens. Besides voting, chances are that some time in your life you'll be called upon to participate in your government, whether it is to serve on a jury, testify in court, or petition your Congress person to pass or defeat an idea for a law. By knowning the branches, who runs them, and how they work together, you can be involved, informed, and intelligent.

Legal status

While each of the state governments within the United States holds legal and administrative jurisdiction within its bounds,[3] they are not sovereign in the Westphalian sense in international law which says that each state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of all external powers, on the principle of non-interference in another state's domestic affairs, and that each state (no matter how large or small) is equal in international law.[4] Additionally, the member states of the United States do not possess international legal sovereignty, meaning that they are not recognized by other sovereign states such as, for example, France, Germany or the United Kingdom,[4] nor do they possess full interdependence sovereignty (a term popularized by international relations professor Stephen D. Krasner),[5][6] meaning that they cannot control movement of persons across state borders.[4]

This form of limited sovereignty (commonly called "dual sovereignty" or "separate sovereigns" in the language of constitutional law) is derived from the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."[3] Structured in accordance with state law (including state constitutions and state statutes), state governments share the same structural model as the federal system, with three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial.

The governments of the 13 states that formed the original Union under the Constitution trace their roots back to the colonial governments of the Thirteen Colonies. Most of the states admitted to the Union after the original 13 have been formed from organized territories established and governed by Congress in accord with its plenary power under Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution.[2]

Six subsequent states were never an organized territory of the federal government, or part of one, before being admitted to the Union. Three were set off from an already existing state: Kentucky (1792, from Virginia),[7][8][9] Maine (1820, from Massachusetts),[7][8][9] and West Virginia (1863, from Virginia).[8][9][10] Two were sovereign states at the time of their admission: Texas (1845, previously the Republic of Texas),[7][8][11] and Vermont (1791, previously the de facto but unrecognized Vermont Republic).[7][8][12] One was established from unorganized territory: California (1850, from land ceded to the United States by Mexico in 1848 under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo).[7][8][13]


The legislative branch of the U.S. states consists of state legislatures. Every state except for Nebraska has a bicameral legislature, meaning it comprises two chambers.

The unicameral Nebraska Legislature is commonly called the "Senate", and its members are officially called "Senators".

In the majority of states (26), the state legislature is simply are called "Legislature". Another 19 states call their legislature "General Assembly". Two states (Oregon and North Dakota) use the term "Legislative Assembly", while another two (Massachusetts and New Hampshire) use the term "General Court".

Upper houses

In the 49 bicameral legislatures, the upper house is called the "Senate".

Until 1964, state senators were generally elected from districts that were not necessarily equal in population. In some cases state senate districts were based partly on county lines. In the vast majority of states, the Senate districts provided proportionately greater representation to rural areas. However, in the 1964 decision Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, unlike the United States Senate, state senates must be elected from districts of approximately equal population.

Lower houses

In 40 of the 49 bicameral state legislatures, the lower house is called the "House of Representatives". The name "House of Delegates" is only used in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. California and Wisconsin call their lower house the "State Assembly", while Nevada and New York simply call the lower house the "Assembly". New Jersey calls its lower house the "General Assembly".


The executive branch of every state is headed by an elected Governor. Most states have a plural executive, in which several key members of the executive branch are directly elected by the people and serve alongside the Governor. These include the offices of Lieutenant Governor (often on a joint ticket with the Governor) and Attorney General, Secretary of State, auditors (or comptrollers or controllers), Treasurer, Commissioner of Agriculture, Commissioner (or Superintendent) of Education, and Commissioner of Insurance.[citation needed]

Each state government is free to organize its executive departments and agencies in any way it likes. This has resulted in substantial diversity among the states with regard to every aspect of how their governments are organized.

Most state governments traditionally use the department as the standard highest-level component of the executive branch, in that the secretary of a department is normally considered to be a member of the Governor's cabinet and serves as the main interface between the Governor and all agencies in his or her assigned portfolio. A department in turn usually consists of several divisions, offices, and/or agencies. A state government may also include various boards, commissions, councils, corporations, offices, or authorities, which may either be subordinate to an existing department or division, or independent altogether.


The judicial branch in most states has a court of last resort usually called a Supreme Court that hears appeals from lower state courts. New York's highest court is called the Court of Appeals, while its trial court is known as the Supreme Court. Maryland's highest court was called the Maryland Court of Appeals until 2022 when it was renamed the Supreme Court of Maryland.[14] Texas and Oklahoma each have separate courts of last resort for civil and criminal appeals. Each state's court of last resort has the last word on issues of state law and can be overruled only on issues of federal law by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The structure of courts and the methods of selecting judges is determined by each state's Constitution or legislature. Most states have at least one trial-level court and an intermediate appeals court from which only some cases are appealed to the highest court.

Delaware has a unique equity court called the Court of Chancery.

Common government components

Although the exact position of each component may vary, there are certain components common to most state governments:


Education is one of the largest areas of spending by state governments.[15] This includes K–12 education (primary and secondary schools) as well as State University systems.[15]

Health care

Health care is one of the largest areas of spending by state governments.[15] This includes spending on Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.[15]

State Government debt to gross domestic product

State debt to GDP (2017)
State debt to GDP (2017)


See also


  1. ^ "Glossary of Statistical Terms: State Government". Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Retrieved February 26, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "Constitution of the United States, Article IV, Section 3, Paragraph 1". Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
  3. ^ a b "Constitution of the United States, Amendment X". Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School. Retrieved 17 October 2015. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
  4. ^ a b c Krasner, Stephen D. (2001). Problematic Sovereignty: Contested Rules and Political Possibilities. pp. 6–12. ISBN 9780231121798.
  5. ^ Lynch, Katherine L. (2003). The Forces of Economic Globalization: Challenges to the Regime of International Commercial Arbitration. The Hague: Kluwer Law International. p. 61. ISBN 9789041119940. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  6. ^ Axtmann, Roland (2007). Democracy: Problems and Perspectives. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 136. ISBN 9780748620104. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d e Stein, Mark (2008). How the States Got Their Shapes. New York: HarperCollins. pp. xvi, 334. ISBN 9780061431395.
  8. ^ a b c d e f "Official Name and Status History of the several States and U.S. Territories".
  9. ^ a b c Michael P. Riccards, "Lincoln and the Political Question: The Creation of the State of West Virginia" Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 27, 1997 online edition
  10. ^ "A State of Convenience: The Creation of West Virginia, Chapter Twelve, Reorganized Government of Virginia Approves Separation". West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
  11. ^ Holt, Michael F. (200). The fate of their country: politicians, slavery extension, and the coming of the Civil War. New York: Hill and Wang. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-8090-4439-9.
  12. ^ "The 14th State". Vermont History Explorer. Vermont Historical Society.
  13. ^ "California Admission Day September 9, 1850". California Department of Parks and Recreation.
  14. ^ Lash, Steve (2022-11-29). "Maryland's appellate courts will get new names Dec. 14". The Daily Record. Baltimore: Maryland Daily Record. Archived from the original on 2022-12-14. Retrieved 16 March 2023.
  15. ^ a b c d "Policy Basics: Where Do Our State Tax Dollars Go?". Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 10 April 2009.
This page was last edited on 6 May 2023, at 19:00
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