Civics, Beyond Basics Q & A

Each quarter LWV Larimer hosts a discussion of “Civics, Beyond Basics” at the Fort Collins Old Town Library. We grow our understanding of government by sharing and asking. This is a follow-up of answers from the most-recent session.

If you have a civics question for us, please send us a message with either a message on from our website form, or on our Facebook fan page. We will do our best to offer an answer.

LWVLC  member, past Larimer League Spokesperson, and past Colorado League President, Nancy Crow, answered this series of questions.

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What is the role of state Supreme Courts vs. U.S. District Courts? How many districts does the nation have? Do plaintiffs choose which district to submit their case?

The nation’s 94 district or trial courts are called U.S. District Courts.   The district courts exercise original jurisdiction over—that is, they are empowered to conduct trials in—the following types of cases:

  •      Civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States
  •      Certain civil actions between citizens of different states
  •      Civil actions within the admiralty or maritime jurisdiction of the United States
  •      Criminal prosecutions brought by the United States
  •      Civil actions in which the United States is a party

For most of these cases, the jurisdiction of the federal district courts is concurrent with that of the state courts. In other words, a plaintiff can choose to bring these cases in either a federal district court or a state court.

A state supreme court is the ultimate judicial tribunal in the court system of a particular state (i.e., that state’s court of last resort). On matters of state law, the decisions of a state supreme court are considered final and binding on state and even United States federal courts.

Federal courts may overrule a state court only when there is a federal question, which is to say, a specific issue (such as consistency with the Federal Constitution) that gives rise to federal jurisdiction.

What is the Attorney General’s specific role in the Justice Department? Does s/he ever interact with the District and/or Supreme Courts?

The US Attorney General’s role is to represent or supervise the representation of the United States Government in the Supreme Court of the United States and all other courts, foreign and domestic, in which the United States is a party or has an interest as may be deemed appropriate.

Which states have the most and least secure voting machines?
States with the most secure voting machines are those that require verified paper ballots.  Those with the least secure machines are paperless.

In 2017, Colorado became the first state to carry out mandatory post-election audits.
A president can call for a retaliatory strike without a vote of Congress in the interest of time… Can they do this multiple times? Is there any circumstance when s/he can call for a first-strike without a vote of Congress? When were times in history where a president carried out “Use of Force” without declaring war? Who in Congress would insist on a vote at what point?

Congress has declared war on 11 occasions, including its first declaration of war with Great Britain in 1812, Mexico in 1846, Spain in 1898, against two countries during WWI, and six countries during WWII.  Since that time it has agreed to resolutions authorizing the use of military force and continues to shape U.S. military policy through appropriations and oversight.

It is generally agreed that the title Commander-in-Chief gives the president power to repel attacks against the US without Congressional approval.

The War Powers Act of 1973 was intended to check the presidential power to commit the US to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.  It requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days without Congressional authorization.  It was passed in response to secret bombings of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. President Nixon vetoed the act but the veto was overridden by Congress

The War Powers act has been violated many times – or at least bypassed.

Which posts does the president get to appoint and which have to be vetted by congress? Can a president skip the vetting process in emergency? For instance, when a terrorist attack strikes the U.S. and Director of Homeland Security is vacant?

The president’s selection for  members of his cabinet, members of the subcabinet, federal judges, Supreme Court judges, and the director and deputy director of major federal agencies are all subject to the vote of the US Senate.  Vacancies, other than for judges, can be filled by acting officials until the Senate can act. Also, the president can exercise a recess appointment that is in effect for a specific length of time.

The president can name his own advisors such as his chief of staff and national security advisor without approval from any other governmental entity.

Vetting is the process of conducting background checks on all persons being considered for any position.  It is a best practice but not mandated.

If the State Department is under Executive Branch, what are moments in history when the Secretary of State and the President were in open conflict? Have other Secretaries of State been fired or resigned in recent history?

There are many occasions in US history where the President has been in disagreement with his/her Secretary of State.  This would take extensive research.

Do any other nations have something similar to our electoral college?

No!

Concepts from the U.S. Constitution that have inspired other democracies, e.g, separation of powers among three branches of government, checks and balances, protection of minority rights, due process.  But most of the world’s democracies have chosen other models for their electoral process:

  • In the way representatives are elected,
  • Providing ways for all voices to be heard
  • Ensuring the fairness of elections

What is the idea behind a constitutional convention and could it really happen?

Here’s what Article V of the U.S. Constitution says about amending the Constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution, or, on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments, which, in either case, shall be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three fourths of the several states, or by conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other mode of ratification may be proposed by the Congress; . . .  

The Republican Party has supported calling a constitutional convention to propose and then ratify a balanced budget amendment.  It would take the legislatures of 34 state to make this call for a convention. Currently 33 states’ legislature have a Republican majority. Yes, it could happen.


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