Opinion: CJ Opinion

Why we must relearn the separation of powers principle

The American founders were diligent students of history. We would be wise to check our arrogance and channel their knowledge about government and human nature.

The separation of powers concept is an essential framework of our Constitution designed to prevent the tyranny of centralized power. Unfortunately, a concept that is already floundering because of lack of civic instruction or knowledge of American history, has been further weakened by the coronavirus pandemic. Many state governors, including here in North Carolina, doled out excessive emergency orders with little to no checks on their decrees.

Furthermore, many lawmakers and political candidates now support packing the U.S. Supreme Court and federal district courts. Including some right here in North Carolina. Yet, packing the courts, which was wisely rejected in the 1930s, is a threat to the entire concept of three co-equal branches of government.

Amazingly, a recent study by the Rand Corporation reveals that barely half of teachers and administrators feel it’s essential that students understand concepts like federalism, checks and balances, and separation of powers. It’s a stunning admission and explains a lot about our collective woes pertaining to civic knowledge and broader engagement in the public square.

“The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” wrote James Madison in the Federalist.

The brilliance of the Constitution isn’t just that the separation of powers includes separate branches at one level of the government, but the framers designed our government in a way where power is shared at the federal, state, and local levels.

Our often-ignored 10th Amendment should be a good starting point as it directs us that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

If we are going to have a healthy political society that requires a healthy civic-minded culture. Otherwise, partisan bickering will only continue to spiral out of control given that most of the chips are put into one basket – at the federal level. Here in North Carolina, one of the biggest problems is an activist judiciary interfering with the powers of the legislative branch. Understanding and teaching core concepts like separation of powers is vital to the health and state of our nation. Without that understanding, tyranny begins to take root and further erodes the fabric of the greatest experiment of self-government in the entire world.

Ray Nothstine is Carolina Journal opinion editor. 

A version of this piece first appeared in the August print edition of Carolina Journal.