James Madison knew a bad thing when he saw it: It is dangerous, he warned, to give any one person or institution too much power. But in these turbulent times, the separation of powers — a foundation of American democracy — is a concept this country is perilously close to forgetting.
In one of his most famous Federalist papers, Madison warned in 1788 that the structure of the new U.S. government was crucial to ensuring “the proper checks and balances” between competing branches. The concept of separation of powers was thus enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
A breakdown of the separation of powers can manifest itself in many ways. The legislative branch might fail to provide effectively oversight of the executive branch. Our lawmakers might launch personal attacks on judges after rulings they disagree with. The balance could also be swayed if the executive branch circumvents the lawmaking duties of Congress, or when legislators seek to slash judges’ pay — or even try to impeach them — because courts hand down unfavorable decisions.
Unfortunately, much of our citizenry is ignorant of the concept of separation of powers. A 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll found that only 26 percent of Americans can even name the three branches of government.
At the American Bar Association, one of our most important jobs is ensuring that all citizens understand the rule of law that underlies our democracy.
May 1 is Law Day in the United States, and this year the theme is the separation of powers. On Law Day, lawyers across the country will gather in schools and civic centers to teach students and adults the importance of this concept.
State and local bar associations will hold hundreds of events. Students from California to the Carolinas will write essays, create posters and make videos. Many colleges will bring in high school students for workshops. Many bar associations will honor people who promote a better understanding and respect for the rule of law.
Our constitutional framers understood that too much power amassed by one group or one person, without appropriate checks in place, would destroy the balance that protects the framework of our democracy.
The separation of powers exists to control the power of government — especially in tumultuous times. It underpins our democracy.
The consequences of forgetting this principle is as clear today as when Madison issued his warning: A disintegration of the checks and balances among the three branches of government could be catastrophic for our democracy.