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Lesson 2: The Role of State Government and the State Constitution
Lesson 2 discusses the relationship between state and national governments within America's federalist system. Specifically, the lesson:
  • defines the principles of American federalism and the role of constitutions generally in outlining the powers of state and federal government;
  • discusses Nebraska's Constitution more specifically; and
  • examines more specifically the role of state governments, particularly Nebraska's, within this system.
The Principles of American Federalism

In many countries, documents called constitutions serve as manuals for government. Constitutions outline the role and powers of government institutions, and they may alsooutline any basic freedoms or rights that the citizens of a country hold. The representative democracy found in the United States is set up in the Constitution of the United States, which was approved, or ratified, in 1789.

As they were writing the Constitution, the founders of the United States realized that a government based on majority rule must be careful to protect the rights of the minority. Consequently, the founders based the U.S. Constitution on three principles designed to ensure that no one group of individuals could take away the rights of any other group.

The first of these three principles is called separation of powers. The founders realized that the new country would need a number of different tasks performed by the government. Subsequently, they divided the country's government into three separate branches, each of which would be responsible for one primary task. The representative branch of government consists of a legislature that is responsible for lawmaking, while the judicial branch of government consists of the court system and is responsible for interpreting the laws. Finally, the executive branch of government consists of the presidency and various departments, and is responsible for administering the laws.

The second principle included by the Founders in the Constitution is that of checks and balances. In order to make sure that the government remained stable and that laws that were passed were good for the country, the Founders allowed each branch of government to check the activities of the other branch. Thus, for example, if Congress passes a law that seems unfair to the President, he or she can kill, or veto, that piece of legislation. Checks and balances allow each branch to watch the other branch and ensure that any laws that pass are good for the country as a whole.

Finally, the Founders included in the U.S. Constitution the principle of federalism. That is, the powers of governing are divided among a national, or federal government and individual state governments, such as that found in Nebraska. Each of these two levels of government has its own constitution, its own series of responsibilities, and its own set of powers. State governments, for example, have the right to set the minimum age at which you are eligible for a driver's license. On the other hand, only the United States government has the right to make treaties with other countries.

Why would the Founders go to such great lengths to divide the powers of governing among branches and state and national levels?


Interviewee: Former Chief Justice John Hendry, Nebraska Supreme Court

"Many-Leveled Government, Part 1" discusses more specifically the concepts of separation of powers and federalism, as well as the motivations of the Founders for including these principles in the federal constitution.

Critical Thinking Exercise

In Nebraska, citizens can have a great deal of impact on state politics. However, much of the education that students receive regarding the government revolves around the dynamics and institutions of the national government.

  • Is there an issue that you are concerned about?
  • What have you learned so far about state government and representation that could help you turn your idea into a Nebraska law?
Nebraska's Constitution

If the United States has a constitution, why does the state of Nebraska need another one? Although this may seem redundant, it is important to remember that the United States government is a federalist system. Since governments exist at many levels of American society, separate constitutions are needed in order to define the rights of citizens and the rules of society at each of these levels. (You will learn later in this lesson, however, that the U.S. Constitution is considered to be the supreme law of the land.)

Interestingly, compared to the U.S. Constitution, the Nebraska Constitution is quite long. It consists of 18 sections, or articles, each of which helps fulfill the role of the Nebraska Constitution - placing limitations on the power exercised by the state legislature. One way in which the Constitution does this is by outlining a set of rights guaranteed to citizens. For example, Article I outlines a number of freedoms you may enjoy, such as the right to speak freely about subjects that concern you and the right to a jury trial if you are accused of a crime. Article VII guarantees all Nebraska children the right to a cost-free education, while Article III explains that the Nebraska Legislature shall consist of one chamber.

As times change, citizens, legislators and scholars sometimes see a need to change the state constitution. Just as amendments are added to the U.S. Constitution, an amending process takes place in Nebraska so that our constitution can adapt to the needs of the people. In fact, citizens can influence the shape of the constitution directly. If enough citizens' signatures are gathered in a petition drive (10 percent of registered voters), an initiative to amend the constitution can be placed on an upcoming election ballot. These initiatives spell out the language of the proposed amendment to the constitution, and must be supported by a majority of Nebraska voters (as long as those voters make up 35 percent of the participants of that election) in order for an amendment to be ratified, or passed.


Interviewee: Former Chief Justice John Hendry, Nebraska Supreme Court

"Many-Leveled Government, Part 2" discusses specifically the role of state constitutions like Nebraska's within our federalist system.

Critical Thinking Exercise

Over the years, a number of initiatives have been passed by citizens of Nebraska who were concerned about a public policy issue. However, as we have discussed, direct citizen input - such as that seen when citizens vote directly on constitutional initiatives - seems to match the concept of direct democracy better than that of representative democracy.

  • What do you think? Should citizens have a direct impact on the shape of the Nebraska Constitution?
  • Should state legislators be involved in the process?
The Role of State Governments

Because of the principle of federalism, the balance of power between state and federal governments has changed over the course of America's history. In many cases, controversies involving state and federal powers involve how much flexibility states have in spending their money. For example, the federal government will offer the states a grant - money given to the states to help them fix a particular social problem. For much of the country's history, the federal government was very specific about how states should spend this money. More recently, the federal government has allowed states to spend the grant as they wish, as long as broad rules are followed.

One reason why the state and federal governments disagree is the presence of two clauses, or sections, in the U.S. Constitution which seem to have very different goals. The U.S. Constitution is the document that outlines the framework for the national state government. The Constitution describes the purpose of the government, how the government should be organized, and what rights belong to citizens.

Article VI of the Constitution declares that the laws of the United States are the "supreme law of the land." This section, called the Supremacy Clause, ensures that the country's citizens, state legislatures, and courts are bound first and foremost by the laws of the United States. However, the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution declares that any powers not specifically granted to the national government in the Constitution are "reserved to the states." This means that state governments have the ability to make laws that they feel are necessary to protect their citizens.

Since the Constitution gives power to both the state and federal governments in these two sections, they often lead to disagreement about which issues state governments should control and which issues the national government should control. Because of this confusion, it is often said that the state and federal governments share power. If this is the case, then what do state governments do?

Critical Thinking Exercise

Many of the funds that the federal government distributes to the states have "strings" attached. State governments can only receive these funds if they agree to make or amend certain laws, or spend the money in very specific ways.

  • Is this a violation of states' rights as outlined in the Tenth Amendment?
What Can I Do?

You can access both the Nebraska Constitution and the United States Constitution on the Internet.

  • How similar are these two documents?
  • Have the constitutions been changed since they were adopted?
  • Does the federal government guarantee to you the same rights as the Nebraska state government?
  • What could you do if you felt that one of these rights had been taken away from you?