State governments of the United States
|This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
the United States
State governments in the United States are those republics formed by citizens in the jurisdiction thereof as provided by the United States Constitution, with the original 13 states forming the first Articles of Confederation, and later the aforementioned Constitution. Within the U.S. constitution are provisions as to the formation of new states within the Union.
Structured in accordance with state law (including state constitutions and state statutes), state governments share the same structural model as the federal system, with three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial.
The governments of the 13 colonies that formed the original union under the Constitution trace their history back to the royal charters which established them during the era of colonialism. Most other states were organized as federal territories or parts of other states before forming their governments and requesting admittance into the union. Notable exceptions are Texas and Hawaii, which were sovereign nations before joining the union.
In the majority of states (26), the state legislature is simply called the "Legislature." Another 19 states call their legislature the "General Assembly". Two states (Oregon and North Dakota) use the term "Legislative Assembly", while another two (Massachusetts and New Hampshire) use the term "General Court".
In the 49 bicameral legislatures, the upper house is called the "Senate".
Until 1964, state senators were generally elected from districts that were not necessarily equal in population. In some cases state senate districts were based partly on county lines; in the vast majority of states the senate districts provided proportionately greater representation to rural areas. However, in the 1964 decision Reynolds v. Sims, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, unlike the United States Senate, state senates must be elected from districts of approximately equal population.
In 40 of the 49 bicameral state legislatures, the lower house is called the "House of Representatives". The name "House of Delegates" is used in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. California and Wisconsin call their lower house the "State Assembly", while Nevada and New York simply call the lower house the "Assembly". New Jersey calls its lower house the "General Assembly".
The executive branch of every state is headed by an elected Governor. Most states have a plural executive, in which several key members of the executive branch are directly elected by the people and serve alongside the governor. These include the offices of lieutenant governor (often on a joint ticket with the governor) and attorney general, secretary of state, auditors (or comptrollers or controllers), treasurer, commissioner of agriculture, commissioner (or superintendent) of education, and commissioner of insurance.
Each state government is free to organize its executive departments and agencies in any way it likes. This has resulted in substantial diversity among the states with regard to every aspect of how their governments are organized.
Most state governments traditionally use the department as the standard highest-level component of the executive branch, in that the secretary of a department is normally considered to be a member of the governor's cabinet and serves as the main interface between the governor and all agencies in his or her assigned portfolio. A department in turn usually consists of several divisions, offices, and/or agencies. A state government may also include various boards, commissions, councils, corporations, offices, or authorities, which may either be subordinate to an existing department or division, or independent altogether.
A few of the most populous or oldest states have run into serious administrative problems because they promoted too many important government functions from divisions to departments (usually in response to whatever was the biggest scandal at the time), thereby expanding the governor's cabinet to an unwieldy size. Rather than adopt the sensible (but politically radioactive) solution of demoting some departments back to divisions, those states created another level above departments and limited cabinet membership to the officers appointed at that level. California created "agencies" (also called "superagencies" by government insiders to distinguish them from the general usage of the term "agency"), while Massachusetts created "executive offices."
The judicial branch in most states is topped by a court of last resort usually called a supreme court that hears appeals from lower state courts. Oddly, New York's highest court is called the Court of Appeals, while its trial court is known as the Supreme Court. Maryland also calls its highest court the Court of Appeals. Texas and Oklahoma each separate courts of last resort for civil and criminal appeals. Each state's court has the last word on issues of state law and can only be overruled by federal courts on issues of Constitutional law.
The structure of courts and the methods of selecting judges is determined by each state's constitution or legislature. Most states have at least one trial-level court and an intermediate appeals court from which only some cases are appealed to the highest court.
Common government components
Although the exact position of each component may vary, there are certain components common to most state governments:
- Office of the Governor
- Office of the Lieutenant Governor
- Office of the State Attorney General
- Arts council
- Banking/Financial institutions
- Civil service
- Consumer protection
- Corrections and parole supervision
- Economic development
- Emergency management
- Fire protection
- Health care
- Highway patrol
- Law revision
- Motor vehicles
- Military affairs (National Guard)/Adjutant general
- Occupational safety and health
- Pensions (for public employees)
- Public health
- Secretary of state
- State parks
- State police
- State university system
- Unemployment insurance
- Veterans' affairs
- Workers' compensation
- Comparison of U.S. state governments
- Local government in the United States
- Federal government of the United States
- Article Four of the United States Constitution
- Seals of the U.S. states