The Ottumwa Courier

Court Calls

December 8, 2012

In praise of checks and balances

Court Calls

OTTUMWA — “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. The preservation of liberty requires that the three great departments of power should be separate and distinct.”

— Federalist Paper 47; James Madison

Most of us studied the separation-of-powers doctrine in high school government class and have likely given it little thought since. Recent headlines, however, prompt renewed appreciation for the fact that this principle is firmly enshrined in our American system of government. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi recently issued a controversial decree that makes his presidential decisions “final and binding” — beyond challenge in the courts—until a new constitution is approved. Critics have described this move as a “blatant power grab” and Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council describes it as an “unprecedented attack on judicial independence.” I am thankful I am a judge in the United States where we all benefit from the founding fathers’ wisdom in balancing the authority in government.  

Remarkably, the concept of separating powers dates back to ancient Roman times. Under the Constitution of the Roman Republic, the state was divided into branches — each with separate and independent powers and areas of responsibility, so that no one branch could reign over another.

The phrase “separation of powers” is actually attributed to Baron de Montesquieu, a political philosopher during the 18th Century French Enlightenment. He believed in a system of governance in which the three branches exist largely independent of each other, each with its own prerogatives and domains of activity, and yet each exercising a “check” or control on the power of the other two. Montesquieu’s theories significantly influenced the framers of our U.S. Constitution.

It is the genius of our founders, reflected in our Constitution, that saves us from the destabilizing political turmoil and violent power struggles we see occurring in Egypt now and in other countries from time to time.

Judge Gamon serves as a district-court judge, based in Ottumwa. She may be reached at lucy.gamon@iowacourts.gov.

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