• Studio ATAO

Written by: Emily Chen, Hanna Seabright, Jenny Dorsey

With guidance from: Ashtin Berry

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Table of Contents

How Local and State Governments Are Structured

Federal, State, and Local Laws

As covered in Understanding…U.S. Federal Government, the U.S. uses a system of governing called federalism, which means it is governed by two levels of authority: state and federal. (On the exception of U.S. territories, which all follow federal law.) The laws held by the federal government include areas like immigration, bankruptcy, social security, anti-discrimination and civil rights, patent & copyright, and federal criminal laws; these laws apply to all states and local governments.

State laws handle areas like marriage & divorce, public welfare programs, wills & estates, business contracts, real estate, personal injuries & workers compensation, and state criminal laws. These apply to all areas governed by the state. Under the 10th Amendment, all powers not expressly given to the federal government is to be held by the state. The laws shared by state and federal governments are called concurrent powers, which include powers like the power to tax, build roads, and create lower courts.

In instances where state and federal laws disagree, the supremacy clause of Article VI of the U.S. constitution establishes federal law has higher authority. However, in instances of conflict where a state law either gives more rights to its citizens than federal law, or has stricter requirements than the federal law, the state law can still legally prevail in that state.

For example, before same sex marriage was ruled by the Supreme Court to be federally legal in 2015, certain states had already legalized it under state law (which generally handles marriage & divorce); this ‘conflict’ could be upheld because this was an additional citizen right given to residents of that state. Conversely, despite the 2015 ruling recognizing same sex marriage, many states still have marriage bans on any marriages that are not explicitly between a man and woman, or have other laws that undermine same sex marriage in that state (e.g. “religious freedom” exemptions for public officials who refuse to accept same sex couples). Abortion rights follow in a similar pattern, where abortion is legally allowed on a federal level but many states have far tighter requirements on abortion (e.g. heartbeat bill) as a way to circumvent federal law.

There are also instances of explicit conflict between state and federal law, like marijuana decriminalization, where because the enforcement of the law rests in state hands (generally through police power), the state law typically becomes the de facto law because police powers are left to the state. Federally, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug but various states have either decriminalized (removed penalties for possession) it or allowed it medically or recreationally. As such, growers and sellers of marijuana in those states who follow the state-sanctioned marijuana laws are not persecuted by the state and, although their activity is technically illegal by federal law, are realistically very unlikely to be persecuted by the federal government because there is simply not enough federal resources to do so.

State Government Structures

All states have their own written constitution, which sets the rules of how the state is governed through its three arms and the state bill of rights. These documents are often far longer and more comprehensive than the federal constitution, with the Alabama constitution containing 40x more words.

State governments are generally structured in the same way as the federal government, each with an executive, legislative, and judicial arm, however states are not required to maintain this structure. The executive branch is helmed by the governor, who is elected by popular vote. Other important leaders in this branch are the lieutenant governor (a similar role as the Vice President, but for the State government), the attorney general (the top legal officer of the state), and the secretary of state (exact role requirements vary, but generally oversees the official records of the state).

The legislative branch of the state is made up of elected representatives to decide on how and what legislation becomes state law. They are also able to ratify amendments to the state constitution, in charge of the state budget, tax legislation, and impeachment proceedings. 49 states (the exception being Nebraska) have the same legislative structure as the federal government, with an upper chamber (Senate) and lower chamber (House of Representatives, or Assembly). These officials typically hold short terms (2 years).

The state judicial branch is headed by the State Supreme Court (sometimes goes by different names), which presides over state appellate courts (or appeals courts) that are set by district. Much like federal appellate courts, these courts do not hold trials but hear any appeals of rulings of state trial courts. Once the state supreme court has made its decision, that decision is binding for the state; however, it can be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court if the matters are pertinent to the U.S. Constitution.

Note that state courts hear cases of general jurisdiction, meaning they can hear any type of case unless it is prohibited by state law. The federal courts have limited jurisdiction, which means it can only hear specific types of cases; these cases generally pertain to a “federal question” (involving U.S. Constitution, Government, or federal law) or a “diversity of citizenship” (when parties involved are from different states). (You can read more about the structure of the federal court system in our Season 4 Episode 1 resources document.)

For example, a bank robbery would be tried in federal court, whereas a home robbery would be tried in state court. State courts uphold and interpret their own laws specific to that state and its own constitution. In fact, 90% of all cases in the U.S. judicial system are held at the state level (Judicial Learning Center). Broadly speaking, cases in the state and federal system do not overlap; however if a case pertains to civil liberties or rights with broader impact for the country (e.g. same sex marriage, abortion), then it may be appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Local Government Structures

The state splits its geographic territory first into counties (also known as boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana) and then into municipalities (which we refer to colloquially as cities or towns, sometimes also referred to as townships, villages, boroughs). There are also districts that may offer services to multiple municipalities, such as school districts or fire departments, or simply be further subdivided areas within a municipality or county.

There are three major systems that the county government takes: commission (the most common), council-administrator, and council-elected executive.

In the commission system, an elected group of commissioners serve as the governing body within the county and perform the legislative, executive, and judicial functions -- for example, adopting a budget, setting taxes, maintaining infrastructure, passing county resolutions, and hiring staff members. Elected officials in this system vary county to county, but some typical positions are below. (You can read more about their duties in the “Roles and Responsibilities” section.)

  • County Attorney

  • District Attorney

  • Sheriff

  • County Treasurer

  • County Auditor

  • County Clerk

In the council-administrator system, council members are voted in to serve a specific period of time to lead legislative functions, and the council appoints an administrator, or a county executive (sometimes also called a county mayor or county judge) to oversee the county government and establish broad policy direction and establish a vision for the county. The council members can remove the administrator at any point, so in a way this is similar to appointing a CEO to spearhead a business.

In the council-elected executive system, both council members and the administrator (or the executive) are elected by the public.

Municipal governments, also called city governments, typically take on one of two forms: the mayor-council system or the council-manager system. The mayor-council system has an elected mayor that leads the executive branch of the municipality and an elected city council that leads the legislative. This can be further split into a strong mayor system, where the mayor can veto legislation from the council, hire and fire heads of city departments, and oversee the budget. A weak mayor system, on the hand, is more of a spokesperson for the city council and does not have much authority. (More about this in the section of “Roles & Responsibilities” below.)

The council-manager system has elected council members that are presided over by an elected mayor or elected council members from which a mayor is picked from the group. There is then a city manager that is chosen to handle administrative functions of the government so the council focuses on legislative functions, policy making, and budget.

There are also 3 other forms of municipal government that are very uncommon. The commission form of local government is the oldest form in the U.S. and exists in less than 1% of cities (one example being Portland, Oregon). In this form, elected individual commissioners are responsible for a specific aspect (e.g. police, health, finance) and act in a governing board that has both legislative and executive functions.

The town meeting form of government allows all eligible voters to convene and decide policy and elect officials together. This is found in about 5% of municipalities, such as Marblehead, Massachusetts. Lastly, representative town meeting government takes place in less than 1% of cities (almost all in small, New England municipalities like Lexington, Massachusetts); in this form voters choose a large number of citizens to act as representatives at town meetings who then vote on and implement policy.

Municipalities have a variety of responsibilities, such as regulating zoning, clean water maintenance, garbage and sewage management, park management, and public transportation.

Los Angeles, CA

Since the structure of local governments vary, we are covering in additional detail our two “home base” cities.

Los Angeles county houses 88 cities, one of which is Los Angeles city. Each city in LA County follows the mayor-council structure with 1 elected mayor working with an elected city council. The elected officials of Los Angeles county also include the below.

  • District Attorney

  • Assessor (who assesses property values)

  • Sheriff

  • Board of Supervisors: a 5 member governing body that has 1 elected official per district, serving four-year terms

You can see a comprehensive breakdown of LA county’s organizational chart here and the representatives of different departments here. The county’s budget breakdown is here.

Los Angeles city follows a strong mayor structure. The current mayor of Los Angeles city is Eric Garcetti of the Democratic Party. He is allowed up to 2 four-year terms, and is currently serving his 2nd term (he was elected in 2013). Los Angeles city council has 15 elected members from each of its districts who each serve four-year terms, in addition to elected officials:

  • City Attorney (who prosecutes crime alongside the County DA)

  • Controller (the CFO of the city

You can find out who your exact district representatives are (as well as a district map) by inputting your address here.

The Superior Court of Los Angeles County is a superior court (or trial court) system that oversees the entire county, including Los Angeles city, with 47 total courthouses. They each have general jurisdiction, meaning they can hear both criminal and civil cases, over a range of issues such as family matters, marriage/divorce, estate, juvenile delinquency. The current presiding judge is Judge Kevin C. Brazile.

Any appeals from the LA County superior courts would flow up to the 2nd District Court of Appeals (there are 6 in total for the state), and ultimately to the California Supreme Court. Unlike other states, California has a Judicial Council of California that is in charge of overall administration of the court system, including policy and rule changes for the Courts of Appeal and Superior Courts. This council has 27 members:

  • Chief Justice (appointed by the governor) -- currently Tani Cantil-Sakauye

  • 14 judges (appointed by Chief Justice)

  • 4 attorney members (appointed by the State Bar Board of Governors)

  • 1 member from each house of Legislature

  • 6 advisory members

New York City, NY

New York City operates under a mayor-council, strong mayor structure with 1 elected mayor working with an elected city council. The current mayor of NYC is Bill de Blasio of the Democratic Party. He is allowed up to 2 four-year terms, and is currently serving his 2nd term (he was elected in 2013).

De Blasio, alongside the Public Advocate (oversees public relations with the government, also sits on the city council, and first to succeed the mayor) and Comptroller (oversees financial audits on city agencies and the five public pension funds) are the three people who hold citywide positions in NYC.

The NYC council has 51 members (1 per district) that also serve up to 2 four-year terms (except those elected before 2010, who can serve up to 3 four-year terms). The council is headed by the Speaker of the Council, who is selected by the members. You can find out who your exact district representatives are (as well as a district map) by inputting your address here.

NYC is unique in that it encompasses 5 boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island, Queens. (There are no other boroughs in New York state.) Each of these boroughs belong to a different county within New York State: New York County, Kings County, Bronx County, Richmond County, and Queens County, respectively. Each borough functions like a county in some ways, but does not have a county government (because NYC is consolidated into 1 overall city council); however, each borough does elect a borough president.

The borough president is more of a figurehead, as they do not possess large amounts of power. They do receive some budget from the city government they control, and can also appoint members of the 59 community boards (that oversee community districts) across the boroughs. Each borough also has a borough board, composed of the borough president and council members from the borough. However, no legislative functions run through the boroughs (all run through NYC city council).

NYC contains multiple citywide trial courts to address different topics:

  • Civil Court of the City of New York

  • Criminal Court of the City

  • Family Court

  • Surrogate Court (for cases involving descendants, wills, estates)

  • Court of Claims (for lawsuits against the State of New York involving monetary damages)

  • Supreme Court of the State of New York (very different from other states’ Supreme Courts in that it is a trial court of general jurisdiction, so it can hear both civil and criminal cases. There is 1 Supreme Court in every borough, and it oversees civil cases of higher dollar amounts and criminal cases with felony charges)

Each borough has its own District Attorney, who is also an elected official.

Any appeals from these trial courts flow up to the Intermediate Appellate Courts of the First & Second Departments (the Third and Fourth Departments oversee cases in New York state’s other city courts and town/village courts). Next, any appeals would move to the highest appellate court, the Court of Appeals (New York’s highest court), which has the final governing authority for the state.

Roles & Responsibilities in State & Local Politics

State & County Politics

What does the governor do?

As outlined by the National Governors Association:

Governors are elected into office as the chief executives of each state. All 50 states and 5 commonwealths have a governor. Much like the president, but on a statewide level, the governor is the leader of the executive branch of state government. It is the governor’s job to manage and implement the state budget, pass executive orders to further progress statewide policy and programs, provide order and guidance during public emergencies, and revise and veto or approve state legislation.

Each state has a slightly different version of the qualifications and term limits, the scope of the governor's authority to veto legislation, and their power to issue executive orders and take emergency action based on their individual state.

Some governors have line-item veto power, which means they can veto specific parts of the state budget or a bill. In most states, bills will become laws unless it is vetoed by the governor within a certain number of days. In a few states a bill will only pass if it is personally signed by the governor.

Most governors also have the authority to:

  • Appoint agency and department heads as well as the state’s court judges

  • Appoints a cabinet of advisors in addition to heads of boards and commissions

  • Act as the commander-in-chief of the state’s national guard

  • Enact emergency measures during natural disasters and critical emergencies

The lieutenant governor is most commonly the second-highest executive official in a state. Their powers vary depending on the state, but most generally, lieutenant governors fill vacancies in the governor’s office, sit on boards or commissions, and are involved in state Senate proceedings. Forty-three states allow citizens to elect a lieutenant governor, five states do not have one, and two appoint lieutenant governors from their state Senate (Ballotpedia)

What does the Secretary of State do?

The Secretary of State exists in all states except for Alaska, Hawaii, and Utah. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia opt to use the name Secretary of the Commonwealth instead. The Secretary of State is a state executive official who is elected in thirty-five states and appointed in twelve. Their duties range by state but are largely administrative, “and no two states have identical responsibilities delegated to the secretary of the state” and their areas of interest include “elections, registration, filing, licensing, custodial duties, and publishing” (Ballotpedia).

Examples of typical powers and responsibilities include:

  • Keep state records

  • Issue corporation charters

  • Register trade marks

  • Publish session laws and abstracts of votes

  • Record the official acts of the governor

  • Administer state elections and maintain results

Most states have term lengths of four years. 32 states have no term limits for the Secretary of the State and most other states have a two term maximum.

What is the role of the Treasurer, Comptroller, and Auditor?

A state treasurer is an executive official in charge of overseeing revenue and finances; they are known as their state’s “chief banker”. Nearly every state has a treasurer (who is elected in 36 states and appointed in 12); New York and Texas utilize a controller instead (Ballotpedia). A comptroller, or controller, is a state executive position in 19 states. Their duties are similar to state treasurers in that they have budgetary and managerial powers. Controllers are elected in 9 states and appointed in 10. (Ballotpedia)

While responsibilities vary by state all state treasurers are involved in overseeing state assets, investments, and fiscal well-being. To find your state treasurer, you can use this interactive map.

The role of the state auditor, or auditor general, centers around tracking government finances. They often have a strong accounting background and have worked in the Office of the Auditor General before being auditor general. They are either state executive or legislative officials, depending on the state. They exist in 48 states, half electing and half appointing their state auditors. New York and Tennessee do not have auditors, rather these duties belong to their state comptrollers (Ballotpedia).

Duties are defined by state law, but in general they ensure state programs perform their intended goals, state departments and commissions are following law and regulations, state resources are used properly, and set benchmarks. Another key role they may play is in conflict resolution amongst state agencies, performing internal government audits, investigating fraud allegations, and generally “keeping separate parts of the state government running smoothly together”. (How Stuff Works).

What do state commissioners do?

A commissioner, in its most general sense, is an individual who has authority to do something. The vast majority of states have various commissioners that are responsible for specific departments, divisions, or agencies.

The following commissioners are common state officials:

The insurance commissioner exists in all 50 states. Their duties vary by state, but they generally act as a consumer protection advocate and insurance regulator. The insurance commissioner is elected in 11 states and appointed in 39 states (Ballotpedia).

The agriculture commissioner exists in all 50 states and may also be known as Secretary of Agriculture or Director of Agriculture. They head the agriculture department and typically “oversee regulation of various facets of the agriculture industry as well as the promotion of state agribusiness” (Ballotpedia). 12 states elect the agriculture commissioner and 38 states choose by appointment.

The natural resources commissioner exists in all states except for Wyoming (whose natural resources are managed by the statewide agriculture agency). Only 4 states elect their natural resources commissioner; the rest of the state's commissioners are appointed and non-partisan. Duties include maintenance, protection, and regulation of natural resources. This includes state parks, forests, and areas of recreation (Ballotpedia).

The labor commissioner exists in all 50 states. They are responsible for the administration of state labor laws. This includes seeing that workers are treated fairly by law, managing the state’s minimum wage, overtime, and wage disputes. 4 states elect the labor commissioner, and the rest appoint their commissioners, most often by the governor (Ballotpedia). You can click here to find your labor commissioner.

Lastly, the public service commissioner is found in all 50 states and oversees regulation of essential utility services (energy, telecommunications, water, etc.). The commissioner serves on a multi-member board called a public service commission, ranging from 3 to 7 states, with a total of 201 seats across the U.S. They are elected in 11 states and appointed in 39, with most giving appointment power to the governor (Ballotpedia).

What does the Superintendent of Education do?

The superintendent of schools, also called the superintendent of education, superintendent of public instruction, or chief school administrator, is a state official who is responsible for overseeing a state’s elementary and secondary schools. This position is found in every state, and is elected in 13 and appointed in 37 (Ballotpedia). Duties vary, but include working with the school board to implement decisions, managing educational programs, responding to interest groups such as teachers, parents, advocates, and more (Stand).

You can find the contact information for education agencies in your state here, and the education commissioners of each state here.

What do state judges do?

Court structures vary by state, but there are similarities throughout state court systems, even if the names of the courts may differ. At the base level, cases are first tried in trial court, which hears both criminal and civil cases. To contest a ruling made in trial court, one can appeal their case in an intermediate court, also known as an appellate court. Lastly, the highest court is typically the state Supreme Court, which has the final word on interpretations of state law. Click here for a graphic of a typical state court system.

A judge is an elected or appointed official whose job it is to provide an unbiased and impartial ruling in a court of law. In court, the judge is the one who tells the official sentence of a person being tried. “In cases with a jury, the judge is responsible for ensuring that the law is followed. and the jury determines the facts. In cases without a jury, the judge also is the finder of fact.” (Rhode Island Department of Education).

A variety of cases are heard in state and local courts, including most criminal cases and specific legal matters, such as probate court (wills and estates), contract cases, tort (injury or harm) cases, family law, and most traffic and juvenile cases. All crimes in violation of state law and all cases in which the state is a plaintiff or defendant are heard in state courts. It is also worth noting that bankruptcy cases can only be tried in federal court (Judicial Learning Center).

State judges are either elected (21 states choose high court judges by election) or appointed (29 states choose high court judges by appointment). If a judge runs unopposed on an election ballot, they will automatically be re-elected for another term. Judges can be up for election in one of three ways:

  • Partisan: the candidate is labeled with their party affiliation on the ballot. 6 states use this method

  • Non-partisan: the candidate is not labeled with their party affiliation on the ballot. 15 states use this method

  • Up-and-down retention: eligible voters decide whether or not to elect an incumbent judge for another term

Judges in place by appointment are chosen by “merit selection”. This refers to the process of a non-partisan nominating commission, often called a judicial nominating committee, putting together a list of potential judges (typically three) for an appointing official (typically the governor) who appoints one to be a high court judge. This is called merit selection because the committee chooses applicants based on their merit, or qualifications, with the intent of promoting “judicial impartiality and integrity” (Arizona Judicial Branch).

Judges that are appointed do not have to run election campaigns in order to be appointed, but can be voted out by popular vote in the next election cycle. A state constitution and law dictates who can serve on a judicial nominating committee, and generally speaking, they are chosen by “panels of public officials, attorneys, and private citizens” (American Judicature Society). You can find information on your state's judicial nominating commission here, and information on your states judge election processes here.

What does the State Attorney General and District Attorney do?

There are varying levels of federal and state attorneys (a legally qualified practitioner in a court of law) in the U.S. court system. The U.S. Attorney and its office represents the federal government. Each state has a State Attorney General, who are considered the chief legal officers and prosecutors in their state. They are the “people’s lawyers”, meaning their job is to enforce state law by, for example, prosecuting individuals who have committed civil or criminal acts, by acting as a legal advisor to other elected officials, or prosecuting individuals or entities on behalf of the public interest