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Key Vocabulary


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Civics: The branch of political science that deals with civic affairs and the rights and duties of citizens.

Foundation of American Government

Separation of Powers:  the doctrine under which the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government are not to infringe upon each other's constitutionally vested powers.

Limited Government: a type of government in which its functions and powers are prescribed, limited, and restricted by law.

Checks and Balances: System whereby each branch of an organization can limit the powers of the other branches.

Rule of Law: government by law : adherence to due process of law.

Federalism: A system of government in which power is divided between a central authority and constituent political units.

Unitary System: form of government in which power is held by one central authority.

“Self-Evident Truths”: an assumption that is basic to an argument.

Natural Rights: a political theory that individuals have basic rights given to them by nature or God that no individual or government can deny.

Bill of Rights: The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, added in 1791 to protect certain rights of citizens.

Social Contract: An agreement among the members of an organized society or between the governed and the government defining and limiting the rights and duties of each.

Popular Sovereignty: the concept that political and legislative power resides with the citizens

Bureaucracy: Administration of a government chiefly through bureaus or departments staffed with nonelected officials. An administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action.

Due Process of Law: the administration of justice according to established rules and principles; based on the principle that a person cannot be deprived of life or liberty or property without appropriate legal procedures and safeguards.

Suffrage: The right or privilege of voting.

Bill of Rights

Establishment Clause: a clause in the U.S. Constitution forbidding Congress from establishing a state religion

Free Exercise Clause: the clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting Congress from making any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Ex Post Facto Law: a civil or criminal law with retroactive effect; prohibited in the U.S. Constitution.

Double Jeopardy: The act of putting a person through a second trial for an offense for which he has already been prosecuted or convicted.

Habeas Corpus: common law that are issued to bring a party before the court.

Probable Cause: Reasonable grounds for belief that an accused person may be subject to arrest or the issuance of a warrant.

Eminent Domain: The right of a government to appropriate private property for public use, usually with compensation to the owner.

Indictment: A written statement charging a party with the commission of a crime or other offense, drawn up by a prosecuting attorney and found and presented by a grand jury.

Grand Jury: A jury of 12 to 23 persons convened in private session to evaluate accusations against persons charged with crime and to determine whether the evidence warrants a bill of indictment.

Self-Incriminating: Incrimination of oneself, especially by one's own testimony in a criminal prosecution.


Initiative: The right and procedure by which citizens can propose a law by petition and ensure its submission to the electorate.

Referendum: The submission of a proposed public measure or actual statute to a direct popular vote.

Recall: The procedure by which a public official may be removed from office by popular vote.

Concurrent Powers: a power delegated to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution that is also held by the states.

Reserved Powers: powers that are not expressly delegated to the federal government nor expressly prohibited to the states and are therefore left to the states under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Legislative Branch

Enumerated Powers: the powers specifically named and delegated to the federal government or prohibited to be exercised by the states under the U.S. Constitution

Concurrent Powers: a power that is held simultaneously by more than one entity; specifically : a power delegated to the federal government by the U.S. Constitution that is also held by the states

Reserved Powers: powers that are not expressly delegated to the federal government nor expressly prohibited to the states and are therefore left to the states under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Supremacy Clause: declares the constitution, laws, and treaties of the federal government to be the supreme law of the land to which judges in every state are bound regardless of state law to the contrary

Elastic Clause/Necessary and Proper Clause: the clause in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution that empowers the Congress to make all laws necessary for executing its other powers and those of the federal government as a whole

Bicameral: Composed of or based on two legislative chambers or branches

Incumbent: Currently holding a specified office

Constituents: A resident of a district or member of a group represented by an elected official.

Caucus: A meeting of the local members of a political party especially to select delegates to a convention or register preferences for candidates running for office.

Quorum: a gathering of the minimal number of members of an organization to conduct business

Revenue: The income of a government from all sources appropriated for the payment of the public expenses.

Appropriation: A legislative act authorizing the expenditure of a designated amount of public funds for a specific purpose.

PAC (Political Action Committee): committee formed by a special-interest group to raise money for their favorite political candidates

Lobbyist: To try to influence public officials on behalf of or against (proposed legislation, for example)

Executive Branch

Electoral College: A body of electors chosen to elect the President and Vice President of the United States.

Reprieve: postpone the punishment of a convicted criminal, such as an execution

Pardon: To release (a person) from punishment; exempt from penalty

Veto: the power of the president to reject a bill passed by the legislature and thus prevent or delay its enactment into law.

Impeach: Impeachment is the first step in removing an officer from office.

Lame Duck: an elected official still in office but not slated to continue

Cabinet: persons appointed by a head of state to head executive departments of government and act as official advisers

Judicial Branch

Judicial Review: a constitutional doctrine that gives to a court system the power to annul legislative or executive acts which the judges declare to be unconstitutional.

Judicial Activism: the practice in the judiciary of protecting or expanding individual rights through decisions that depart from established precedent or are independent of or in opposition to supposed constitutional or legislative intent

Judicial Restraint: a refraining in the judiciary from departure from precedent and the formulation of broad doctrine

Concurrent Jurisdiction: jurisdiction that is shared by different courts.

Original Jurisdiction: the jurisdiction granted a court to try a case in the first instance, make findings of fact, and render a usually appealable decision.

Appellate jurisdiction: the jurisdiction granted to particular courts to hear appeals of the decisions of lower tribunals and to reverse, affirm, or modify those decisions.

Litigant: A party engaged in a lawsuit.

Majority Opinion: an opinion in a case that is written by one judge and in which a majority of the judges on the court join

Concurring Opinion: an opinion by a judge who agrees with the result in a case but not necessarily with the reasoning used to reach it.

Dissenting Opinion: an opinion by a judge who disagrees with the result in a case.

Writ of Certiorari: a common law writ issued by a superior court to one of inferior jurisdiction demanding the record of a particular case

Precedent: A judicial decision that may be used as a standard in subsequent similar cases.

Libel: A false publication, as in writing, print, signs, or pictures, that damages a person's reputation.

Slander: Oral communication of false statements injurious to a person's reputation.

Landmark Supreme Court Cases

Marbury v. Madison: The first time that the Supreme Court declared an act of Congress (a section of the Judiciary Act of 1789) to be unconstitutional. This is an exercise of the power of judicial review—the power of the federal courts to interpret laws in light of the Constitution.

McCulloch v. Maryland: the establishment of a national bank was a "necessary and proper" function of the Congress. That many powers of the government are implied rather than specifically stated in the Constitution.

United States v. Nixon: executive privilege is not absolute and that in this case the confidentiality normally accorded a president and his aides had to give way to the demands of the legal system in a criminal case. To give the president absolute executive privilege, he claimed, would amount to an unchecked power that could undermine the rule of law.

Plessy v. Ferguson: In 1896, set the precedent that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were "equal." The "separate but equal" doctrine was quickly extended to cover many areas of public life, such as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools.

Brown v. Board of Education: The doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Overturned Plessy v. Ferguson.

Miranda v. Arizona: Since the police had not informed Mr. Miranda of his constitutional right to keep silent, his rights were violated and conviction was set aside.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke: The Court held that race could be one of the factors considered in choosing a diverse student body in university admissions decisions. The Court also held, however, that the use of quotas in such affirmative action programs was not permissible.

Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena: the majority of judges asserted that "the unhappy persistence of both the practice and the lingering effects of racial discrimination against minority groups in this country" justified the use of race-based remedial measures in certain circumstances.

United States v. Virginia (VMI): As a state-supported school, the Virginia Military Academy had to admit women.

Roe v. Wade: The Court found that “the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision.”

Engle v. Vitale: The Court ruled that New York state could not require a state-composed prayer to begin the school day. Even such a non-denominational prayer as this one was unconstitutional government sponsorship of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

TLO v. New Jersey: The Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches applies to those conducted by public school officials as well as by law enforcement personnel; however, the Court used a less strict standard of “reasonable suspicion” to conclude that the search of a student’s purse by public school officials did not violate the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Tinker v. Des Moines: The Court ruled that students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was “pure speech,” or symbolic speech protected by the First Amendment. The principal’s right to forbid conduct that interfered with school discipline was outweighed by the students’ right to free expression.

Johnson v. Texas: The Court upheld flag burning as symbolic speech: “Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”









copyright 2007-2013, G.Primeaux All Rights Reserved.


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System of government broken down into different levels of government
Taxation is an example of how federalism works. The federal government has an income tax (16th amendment). Some state governments have income taxes on their citizens. Local government has sales tax.