Separation of powers

separation of powers. This is a theory of government whereby political power is distributed among three branches of government — the legislature, the executive and the judiciary — acting both independently and interdependently. This framework was put in place by the Founding Fathers because of their fear of tyranny. The framers of the Constitution were influenced by the writings of the French political philosopher Montesquieu (1689–1755). In his book De L’Esprit des Loix (The Spirit of the Laws), published in 1748, Montesquieu argued for a separationof powers into legislative, executive and judicial branches in order to avoid tyranny.

‘When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person...there can be no liberty,’ he wrote. The Founding Fathers had the idea that each of these three independent yet co- equal branches should check the power of the others. It was decided that no person could be in more than one branch of the federal government at the same time — what we might call ‘the separation of personnel’. When, in 2008, Senator Barack Obama was elected president, he had to resign from the Senate, as did his newly elected vice president Senator Joe Biden. In this sense, the three branches — the institutions of government — are entirely separate.

However, the term ‘separation of powers’ is misleading, for it is the institutions that are separate, not the powers. Professor Richard Neustadt was the most helpful in clearing up this potential confusion. Neustadt (1960) wrote: ‘The Constitutional Convention of 1787 is supposed to have created a government of “separated powers”. It did nothing of the sort. Rather, it created a government of separated institutions sharing powers.’

The Founding Fathers set up an intricate system whereby each branch of the federal government would check and balance the other two.