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adversary system

a system of law where the court is seen as a neutral area where disputants can argue the merits of their cases

affirmative action

government-mandated programs that seek to create special employment opportunities for blacks, women, and other victims of past discrimination


addition to the Constitution. Amendments require approval by two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states. The first ten amendments make up the Bill of Rights.

amicus curiae briefs

"Friend of the court" briefs that like-minded individuals or organizations file in lawsuits to which they are not a party so the judge may consider their advice in respect to matters of law that directly affect the cases in question.

appellate jurisdiction

term used to describe courts whose role is to hear appeals from lower courts

Articles of Confederation

the United States' first constitution. The government formed by the Articles of Confederation lasted from 1781 (the year before the end of the Revolutionary War) to 1789. The government under the Articles proved inadequate because it did not have the power to collect taxes from the states, nor could it regulate foreign trade to generate revenue from import and export tariffs.


Consisting of two legislative houses. The United States has a bicameral legislature; its two houses are the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Bill of Rights

First ten amendments to the US Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees personal liberties and limits the powers of the government.

blanket primary

Primary election in which voters may select a candidate from any party for each office. Blanket primaries use the same procedure as general elections.

block grants

Federal money given to states with only general guidelines for its use. The states have the authority to decide how the money will be spent.

bread-and-butter issues

Those political issues are specifically directed at the daily concerns of most working-class Americans, such as job security, tax rates, wages, and employee benefits.

broad constructionism

Belief that the Constitution should be interpreted loosely concerning the restrictions it places on the federal power. Loose constructionists emphasize the importance of the elastic clause, which allows Congress to pass laws "necessary and proper" to the performance of its duties.

Brown v. Board of Education

The 1954 case in which the Supreme Court overturned the "separate but equal" standard as it applied to education; "separate but equal" had been the law of the land since the Court had approved it in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In a 9-to-0 decision, the court ruled that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

budget deficit

Condition that rises when federal expenditures exceed revenues; in other words, when the government spends more money than it takes in.

budget resolution

Set of budget guidelines that must pass both houses of Congress in identical form by April 15. The budget resolution guides government spending for the following fiscal year.

categorical grants

Federal aid given to states with strings attached. To receive the money, the states must agree to adhere to federally mandated guidelines for spending it.


Meeting of local party members for the purpose of choosing delegates to a national party convention. The term also refers to a meeting of the Democratic members of the House of Representatives.


As mandated by the Constitution, the population of the United States is officially counted every ten years. Census data is then used to help distribute federal money and to reapportion congressional districts.

checks and balances

The system that prevents any branch of government from becoming too powerful by requiring the approval of more than one branch for all important acts.

civil court

Court in which lawsuits are heard. In contrast, criminal cases are heard in criminal court.

civil disobedience

Nonviolent civil disobedience requires activists to protest peacefully against laws they believe unjust and to be willing to accept arrest as a means of demonstrating the justice of their cause. The notion was popularized by 19th-century American writer Henry David Thoreau and was practiced by Martin Luther King Jr.

civil liberties

Those protections against government power embodied in the Bill of Rights and similar legislation. Civil liberties include the right to free speech, free exercise of religion, and right to a fair trial.

civil rights

those protections against discrimination by the government and individuals. Civil rights are intended to prevent discrimination based on race, religion, gender, ethnicity, physical handicap, or sexual orientation.

Civil Rights Act of 1964

Federal law that made segregation illegal in most public places, increased penalties and sentences for those convicted of discrimination in employment and withheld federal aid from schools that discriminated on the basis of race or gender.

civil service system

Method of hiring federal employees based on merit rather than on political beliefs or allegiances. This system replaced the spoils system in the United States.

class action suit

A lawsuit filed on behalf of a group of people, and whose result affects that group of people as a whole. Interest groups such as the NAACP often use these as a means of asserting their influence over policy decisions.

clear and present danger test

Interpretation by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes regarding limits on free speech if it presents clear and present danger to the public or leads to illegal actions; for example, one cannot shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.

closed primary

Primary election in which voting is restricted to registered members of a political party.


A motion in the Senate to end debate. A cloture vote requires a three-fifths majority of the Senate.


A combination of groups of people who work together to achieve a political goal. The coalition on which the Democratic Party rests, for example, is made up of Northern urban dwellers, Jews, African Americans, and labor unions. Coalitions also form among legislators who work together to advance or defeat a particular bill.


The president's role as leader of all United States military forces. This is one of the executive powers authorized in the Constitution.

concurrent powers

Constitutional powers shared by the federal and state governments.

conference committee

Congressional committee that includes representatives of both houses of Congress. Their purpose is to settle differences between the House and Senate versions of bills that have been passed by their respective legislatures.

Congressional Budget Office

Congressional agency of budget experts who assess the feasibility of the president's plan and who help create Congress's version of the federal budget.

congressional district

The geographically defined group of people on whose behalf a representative acts in the House of Representatives. Each state is divided into congressional districts of equal population, with larger states having more districts and representatives than small sates. Congressional districts are reapportioned every ten years according to new census data.


A political ideology that tends to favor defense spending and school prayer and to disapprove of social programs, abortion, affirmative action, and a large, active government. Conservatives are generally affiliated with the Republican party.

constitutional convention

An yet untried method by which the Constitution may be amended. To call a constitutional convention, two-thirds of all state legislatures must petition the federal government; not to be confused with the Constitutional Convention when the Constitution was written.

cooperative federalism

Form of US federalism since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment initiated the long demise of dual federalism by providing the national government the means to enforce the rights of citizens against state infringement. The Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society all increased federal involvement in state government. The result is a system called cooperative federalism in which the national and state governments share many powers.

criminal court

Court in which criminal trials are heard. In contrast, lawsuits are heard in civil court.


The weakening partisan preferences that points to a weakening of the two-party system and a rise of independents in politics.

delegated powers

Constitutional powers granted solely to the federal government.

direct democracy

Form of government in which all enfranchised citizens vote on all matters of government. In contrast, in a representative democracy voters choose representatives to vote for them on most government issues.

divided government

A government in which the presidency is controlled by one party and Congress is controlled by the other. This has become a common occurrence in recent decades as voters have begun to act more independent of parties and have voted split tickets.

double jeopardy

The act of trying an individual a second time after he has been acquitted on the same charges. Double jeopardy is prohibited by the Constitution.

dual federalism

Form of US federalism during the nation's early history. During this period, the federal and state governments remained separate and independent. What little contact most Americans had with government occurred on the state level, as the national government concerned itself primarily with international trade, construction of roads, harbors, and railways, and the distribution of public land in the West.

due process

Established legal procedures for the arrest and trial of an accused criminal.

elastic clause

The section of the Constitution that allows Congress to pass laws "necessary and proper" to the performance of its duties. It is called the elastic clause because it allows Congress to stretch its powers beyond those that are specifically granted to it (enumerated) by the Constitution.

electoral college

Constitutionally established body created for the sole purpose of choosing the president and vice president. During general elections, voters choose a presidential ticket. The winner in each state usually receives all of that state's electoral votes in the electoral college. A majority of electoral votes is required for victory in the electoral college; if such a majority cannot be reached, the election result is determined by the House of Representatives.

eminent domain

the power of the government to take away property for public use as long as there is just compensation for property taken.

entitlement programs

Social insurance programs that allocate federal funds to all people who meet the conditions of the program. Social Security is the largest and most expensive entitlement program. Because they are a form of mandatory spending, it is incredibly difficult to cut funds to entitlement programs during the budgetary process.

Equal Rights Amendment

Failed Constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed equal protection under the law for women (1970s).

establishment clause

Section of the Constitution that prohibits the government from designating one faith as the official religion of the United States.

exclusionary rule

Rule that prohibits the use of illegally obtained evidence at trial. The Supreme Court has created several exceptions to the exclusionary rule, notably the objective good faith rule and the inevitable discovery rule.

executive agreement

Presidential agreements made with foreign nations. Executive agreements have the same legal force as treaties but do not require the approval of the Senate.

executive privilege

The right of the president to withhold information when doing so would compromise national security (e.g., in the case of diplomatic files and military secrets). Executive privilege is not mentioned in the Constitution. It is, rather, part of the unwritten Constitution, the tradition of executive privilege that was initiated by George Washington.

ex post facto laws

If allowed, these laws would punish people for actions that occurred before such actions were made critical.


Process by which governments return fugitives to the jurisdiction from which they have fled.

Federal Reserve Board

Executive agency that is largely responsible for the formulation and implementation of monetary policy. By controlling the monetary supply, the Fed helps maintain a stable economy.


Term describing a system of government under which the national government and local governments (state governments, in the case of the United States) share powers. Other federal governments include Canada, Switzerland, and Australia.

Federalist Papers

A series of essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay to defend the Constitution and persuade Americans that it should be ratified. These documents represent the concerns and issues the framers faced as they created a blueprint for the new government.

Fifteenth Amendment (1870)

Prohibited states from denying voting rights to African Americans. Southern states circumvented the Fifteenth Amendment through literacy tests and poll taxes.


A lengthy speech that halts all legislative action in the Senate. Fillibusters are not possible in the House of Representatives because strict time limits govern all debates there.

First Amendment

Protects the rights of individuals against the government by guaranteeing the freedom of speech, the press, religion, and assembly.

fiscal year

Twelve-month period starting on October 1. Government budgets go into effect at the beginning of the fiscal year. Congress and the president agree on a budget resolution in April to guide government spending for the coming fiscal year.

Freedom of Information Act (1974)

Declassified government documents for public use.

Fourteenth Amendment (1868)

Prevented the states from denying "due process of law" and "equal protection under the law" to citizens. The amendment was specifically aimed at protecting the rights of newly freed slaves. In the 20th century, the Supreme Court used the amendment to strike down state laws that violate the Bill of Rights.


Because early primaries have grown increasingly important in recent years, many states have pushed forward the date of their primary elections. Political analysts refer to this strategy as front-loading.

full faith and credit clause

Section of the Constitution that requires states to honor one another's licenses, marriages, and other acts of state courts.

general election

Election held on the first Tuesday of November, during which voters elect officials.


the practice of drawing congressional district lines to benefit one party over the other.

Gideon v. Wainwright (1963)

Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled that a defendant in a felony trial must be provided a lawyer free of charge if the defendant cannot afford one.

Gramm-Rudman-Holings Bill (1985)

Set budget reduction targets to balance budget but failed to eliminate loopholes.

Great Compromise

Settlement reached at the Constitutional convention between large states and small states. The Great Compromise called for two legislative houses: One in which states were represented by their populations (favoring the large states) and one in which states received equal representation (favoring the small states).

Great Society

President Lyndon B. Johnson's social/economic program, aimed at raising the standard of living for America's poorest residents. Among the Great Society programs are Medicare, Medicaid, Project Head Start, Job Corps, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

Supreme Court decision in which the Court ruled that the Constitution implicitly guarantees citizens' right to privacy.

Hatch Act (1939)

A congressional law that forbade government officials from participating in partisan politics and protected government employees from being fired on partisan grounds; it was revised in 1993 to be less restrictive.

House of Representatives

Lower house of US Congress, in which representation is allocated to states in proportion to their population. The House of Representatives has sole power to initiate appropriations legislation.

House Rules Committee

Determines the rules for debate of each bill, including whether the bill may be amended. This is the most powerful committee in the House. The Senate, which is smaller, has no rules for debate.


Process by which a president, judge, or other government official can be tried for high crimes and misdemeanors. Andrew Johnson was impeach but was found not guilty and was not removed from office.


A written statement of criminal charges brought against a defendant. Indictments guarantee that defendants know the charges against them so they can plan a defense.

inevitable discovery

Exception to the exclusionary rule that allows the use of illegal obtained evidence at trial if the court determines that the evidence would eventually have been found by legal means.


Process through which voters may propose new laws. One of several Progressive Era reforms that increased voters' power over government.

interest group

Political group organized around a particular political goal or philosophy. Interest groups attempt to influence public policy through political action and donations to sympathetic candidates.

iron triangle

Also called subgovernment. Iron triangles are formed by the close working relationship among various interest groups, congressional committees, and executive agencies that enforce federal regulations. Working together, these groups can collectively exert a powerful influence over legislation and law enforcement.

Jim Crow laws

State and local laws passed in the post-Reconstruction Era South to enforce racial segregation and otherwise restrict the rights of African Americans.

joint committee

Congressional committee compose of members of both houses of Congress, usually to investigate and research specific subjects.

judicial activism

Term referring to the actions of a court that frequently strikes down or alters the acts of the executive and/or legislative branches.

judicial restraint

Term referring to the actions of a court that demonstrates an unwillingness to break with precedent or to overturn legislative and executive acts.

judicial review

the power of the Supreme Court to declare laws and executive action unconstitutional.

killer amendment

Amendment to a bill proposed by its opponents for the specific purpose of decreasing the bill's chance of passage.

Ku Klux Klan

Nativist hate group founded during the Reconstruction Era. The Klan terrorized African Americans throughout the South, especially those who attempted to assert their civil rights. The Klan also preached hatred of Catholics and Jews.

legislative oversight

One of Congress's most important tasks. In order to check the power of the executive branch, congressional committees investigate and evaluate the performance of corresponding executive agencies and departments.


Ideology that tends to favor government spending on social programs, affirmative action, a woman's right to an abortion, and an active government, and to disfavor defense spending and school prayer. Liberals are generally affiliated with the Democratic Party.

limited government

Principle of government that states that government powers must be confined to those allowed it by the nation's Constitution.

line-item veto

Power held by some chief executives (e.g., governors) to excise some portions of a spending bull without rejecting the entire bill. The purpose of this power is to allow executives to eliminate frivolous appropriations. The president's claim to the line-item veto was denied by the Supreme Court.


Level of support for an elected official as perceived through election results.

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

Supreme Court decision that established the principle of judicial review.

Marshall, John

Third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (he served 1800 to 1835). A Federalist who worked to increase the powers of the federal government over the states. Marshall established the principle of judicial review.

Miranda v. Arizona (1966)

Supreme Court case in which the Court ruled that, upon arrest, a suspect must be advise of the right to remain silent and the right to consult with a lawyer.

national convention

Occasion at which a political party officially announces its presidential nominee and reveals its party platform for the next four years. Today's national conventions are merely media events, however; nominees have already been determined by primary election results.

National Organization of Women (NOW)

Feminist political group formed in 1967 to promote legislative change. NOW lobbied for the failed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

National Security Council

Presidential advisory board established in 1947. The NSC consults with the president on matters of defense and foreign policy.

Nineteenth Amendment (1920)

Granted voting rights to women.


Endorsement to run for office by a political party.

objective good faith

Exception to the exclusionary rule that allows the use of illegally obtained evidence at trial if the court determines that police believed they were acting within the limits of their search warrant when they seized the evidence.

Office of Management and Budget

Executive branch office responsible for drawing up the president's proposals for the federal budget.

open primary

Primary election in which voters may vote in whichever party primary they choose, but they must select that party before entering the voting booth.

original jurisdiction

Term used to describe a court's power to initially try a case. Courts in which cases are first heard are those with original jurisdiction in the case, By contrast, appellate courts hear challenges to earlier court decisions.


The Constitutional power of Congress to supersede a president's veto by a two-thirds majority in both houses. Such a vote is difficult to achieve, however, so overrides are fairly rare.


Cancellation of criminal punishment. Presidents and governors have the power to grant pardons to those awaiting trial and to those convicted of crimes.

party dealignment

A recent trend in which voters act increasingly independent of a party affiliation. This is partially the result of television because candidates can appeal directly to the electorate without relying on their party. One consequence is split-ticket voting, which leads to a divided government in which neither party controls both the executive and the legislative branch.

party realignment

Occurs when a party undergoes a major shift in its electoral base and political agenda. The groups of people composing the party coalition may split up, resulting in a fairly different party. Realignments are rare and tend to be signaled by a critical election. The last realignment occurred during the New Deal, when many working-class and ethnic groups joined together under the Democratic Party.


Statement of purpose and policy objectives drafted and approved by political parties at their national conventions. Party platforms rarely exert much influence on day-to-day politics.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Supreme Court ruling that "separate but equal" facilities for the different races were not unconstitutional. This ruling opened the door to 75 years of state-sanctioned segregation in the South.

pocket veto

If the president fails to approve a bill passed during the last ten days of a congressional session, the bill does not become law. This process is called a pocket veto.

political action committee (PAC)

the fundraising apparatus of interest groups. Donation to and contributions from PACs are regulated by federal law. PACs contribute heavily to the reelection campaigns of representatives and senators sympathetic to the PAC's political agenda.

political party

Group of people with common political goals which hopes to influence policy through the election process. Parties run candidates for office who represent the political agenda of party members. They therefore serve as a linkage institution between the electorate and politicians.

policy implementation

The process by which executive departments and agencies put legislation into practice. Often agencies are allowed a degree of freedom to interpret legislation as they write guidelines to enact and enforce the law.


Political party of the late 1800s. The Populists primarily represented farmers and working-class Americans. They sought inflationary economic policies to increase farm income. They also lobbied for a number of Democratic reforms that would later be adopted by the Progressives, such as direct election of senators.

pork barrel

Budget items propose by legislators to benefit constituents in their home state or district. Such expenditures are sometimes unnecessary but are passed anyway because they are politically beneficial.

president pro tempore

individual chose to preside over the Senate whenever the vice president is unavailable to do so. The president pro tempore is chosen by the Senate form among its members.

primary elections

Form of election held by the majority of states, during which voters select the nominees for political parties. Winners of primary elections appear on the ballot during the general elections.

prior restraint

Censorship of news material before it is made public.

privileges and immunities clause

Section of the Constitution stating that a state may not refuse police protection or access to its courts to US citizens because they live in a different state.

progressive income tax

A progressive tax increases tax rates for people with higher incomes. Those citizens at the poverty level, for example, may pay few or no taxes. Middle-class citizens may be taxed at a 15 percent rate, while the wealthy are taxed at two or three times that rate. The goal of a progressive tax is to allow those with greater need to keep more of what they earn while taking more from those who need it least.


The minimum number of people required for the legislature to act.

realigning elections

The redefinition of politics and alignment of voters within parties following a major election.


The process by which congressional districts are redrawn and seats are redistributed among states in the House. Reapportionment occurs every ten years, when census data reports shifts in the population of districts. Each district must have an equal number of residents. States may lose or gain seats during reapportionment, but the total House membership remains 435.

recall election

Process through which voters can shorten an office holder's term. One of several Progressive Era reforms that increased voter's power over government.

regulatory agency

Executive agency responsible for enforcing laws pertaining to a certain industry. The agency writes guidelines for the industry, such as safety codes, and enforces them through methods such as inspection.

representative democracy

Form of government under which citizens vote for delegates who in turn represent citizens' interest within the government. In contrast, a direct democracy requires all citizens to vote on all government issues. The United States is a representative democracy.

reserved powers

Constitutional powers that belong solely to the states. According to the Tenth Amendment, these powers include any that the Constitution does not either specifically grant the national government nor deny the state governments.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Supreme Court case that decriminalized abortion.

runoff primary

Election held between two top vote-getters in a primary election when neither received a legally required minimum percentage of the vote. Many states require a runoff when no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the primary vote for his or her party.

sampling error

Margin of error in public opinion poll. Most polls are accurate within a margin of +- 4 percent.

saving amendment

Amendment to a bill proposed in hopes of softening opposition by weakening objectionable elements of the bill.

Schenck v. United States

Supreme Court case involving limits on free speech rights. The Schenck case established the "clear and present danger" principle in determining what type of speech could be restricted.

search warrant

Document issued by the courts to allow the police to search private property. To obtain a warrant, the police must go before a judge and explain 1) where they want to search, and 2) what they are looking for. A search warrant also limits where the police may search and what they may take as evidence (Fourth Amendment).

select committee

Temporary committee of Congress, usually created to investigate specific issues.

selective incorporation

Process by which the Supreme Court has selectively applied the Fourteenth Amendment to state law.


Upper house of Congress, in which each state has two representatives. The Senate has the sole power to approve cabinet, ambassadorial, and federal judicial appointments. International treaties must receive two-thirds approval from the Senate.

senatorial courtesy

A check placed on the president by which candidates for the federal bureaucracy must first be approved by a vote within the Senate.

separation of powers

The system that prevents any branch of government from becoming too powerful by dividing important tasks among the three branches. Also called the system of checks and balances.

shield law

Law guaranteeing news reporters the right to protect the anonymity of their sources. Many states have passed shield laws, but there is no federal shield law.

Sixteenth Amendment (1913)

Authorized Congress to impose and collect federal income taxes.

soft money

Political donations made to parties for the purpose of general party maintenance and support. Soft-money contributions are not limited by federal law. Soft money may be used for get-out-the-vote campaigns, issue advocacy, and advertisements that promote the party (but not individual candidates).

Speaker of the House

Individual chosen by member of the House of Representatives to preside over its sessions.

split-ticket rating

Choosing candidates from different parties for offices listed on the same ballot. Voters have been more inclined to vote a split ticket in recent decades. This trend has led to divided government.

spoils system

The political practice of trading government jobs and preferences for political and financial support. President Andrew Jackson was the first to be widely accused of using the spoils system to reward political friends and supporters.

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