Skip to Content

State Governments

According to the Tenth Amendment of the federal Constitution, all powers not granted to the federal government are reserved to the states and the people. States determine traffic laws, criminal laws, run schools and libraries, have their own taxation systems, welfare systems, environmental laws, and much more. Each of the states has its own constitution. Most states also have a three-branch system like the federal government: executive, legislative, and judicial.

No two state governments are exactly alike. They all have in common the fact that a governor heads the executive branch. The people elect their governor directly in every state. Other high state offices such as lieutenant governor and state attorney general are filled through direct election or through appointment, depending on the state. Some governors have extensive executive powers similar to that of the national president, while in other cases the governor’s role is more as an administrator and coordinator.

All states except Nebraska have bicameral legislatures consisting of a small upper house (the state senate) with terms commonly of four years, and a larger lower house (house of representatives, house of delegates, or state assembly) whose terms generally run two years.

States vary widely in how their court systems are structured. In most states, the state Supreme Court is the highest court. Some judges are appointed, other elected.

Each state has a capital city where the state legislature meets. In many cases, the capital is not the state’s largest city (as is the case for Sacramento, California, Austin, Texas, and Albany, New York). The capital commonly has a central building, called the “Capitol” or the “Statehouse” in which the legislature meets.

All states are divided into counties, called boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana. Some counties have their own county governments, with elected representatives, while others have little legal significance. Smaller governmental units include municipalities: townships, towns, boroughs, villages and cities. Most larger municipalities are run by elected mayors, with city councils, or boards of aldermen acting as the legislative branch.

Next Section:Legal ‘Conservatism’ of the American People

Government and Law: Chapter Home

Life in the USA Home Page.