While the federal government shares some similarities with state government, there are critical differences to consider, too. In California, the legislative branch offers a picture of how these two levels are the same and different in myriad ways. One of the key similarities between the federal legislative branch and the California legislative branch is the bicameral nature. In the federal government, there are two houses. The House of Representatives is the so-called “lower” house. The Senate is the upper house. The state of California has a system that mimics the federal approach. The lower house in California is referred to as the “Assembly.” The upper house in the state is referred to as the Senate, taking the name from the federal government.

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Another similarity is the term for the members of the lower house. In both the California Assembly and the US House of Representatives, members only serve for two years. This means that in both cases, the members are pretty much constantly running for office from the moment they step into their jobs.

One of the differences between the federal and state system is in regard to term limits. In the federal system, a person can continue to serve as long as they are elected. There are no age limits associated with the system. In short, people serve at the pleasure of the people who vote for them, even if this means they end up serving 40 consecutive terms. This is true both for the House of Representatives and the Senate in the federal system. In California, there is a term limit situation for people in the legislature. Today, they can serve no more than 12 years combined in the Assembly and the Senate.

These differences exist in part because of the federal government’s belief that the will of the people should be unimpeded. The federal government’s electoral system operates on the idea that it is self-correcting. If there is a problem with a particular person, or if they have been serving for so long that they are no longer able to do their job well, then the people have the ability to see this and to vote them out. On the state level in California, there has been more of a progressive push. There is a belief that career politicians are unlikely to come up with new and bold ideas. They have a “keep it moving” attitude that drives state level politics.

Another difference is the term of senators in the two systems. People in the California Senate only get four-year terms. Federal senators get six-year terms (Lindsay & Glenn). There is a reason why the federal Senate term is so long. Generally speaking, the Senate moves slower in the federal system. It can take quite a while to get anything of consequence done in that system. On the state level, things tend to move much quicker, so there is less of a need for a lengthy term in order to ensure that people have the ability to do their jobs.

The judicial branch between California and the federal government also features both similarities and differences. One of the similarities is the structure. California features trial courts at the bottom level. From there, appeals courts will hear the initial appeal on most cases. Finally the Supreme Court is there to take up important cases and to help resolve conflicts between the different courts of appeal in the state. The federal system has a similar arrangement. Federal district courts conduct trials, while circuit courts of appeal oversee the direct appeals coming out of trial courts. The Supreme Court is there to monitor any disputes or take on especially critical cases in shaping American law.

Another similarity is that the appellate courts are divided up according to geographical boundaries. There are six appeals courts in California, and they each represent a chunk of the state. This is done to make life easier on lawyers who practice in those courts and to provide judges with the ability to weigh in on issues of local importance. In the federal system, there is a similar breakdown. The circuit courts of appeal are located around the country, usually containing four or five states within them. The Ninth Circuit, for instance, has California and a few other states in the West.

A major difference between the two systems is that federal district courts hear both criminal and civil cases. At the state level, courts are broken down into civil and criminal. The reason for this is quite simple. The evidentiary rules at the federal level are largely the same for criminal and civil trials, with a few differences. Likewise, the federal court system has fewer trials, so there is less of a need for dedicated courts.

Another major difference is that California superior court judges are elected, while federal judges are appointed. Federal appointments are lifetime appointments, so judges do not have to worry about political pressure or bending the law in order to account for the preferences of one party or another (Nagel). This is a critical protection for the federal court system, since it means that judges are able to be independent and unbiased. On the state level, the idea is to hold judges accountable for their decision-making, but the problem with this is that they often have to bend to public will, even when the Constitution says they should take a stand in a given case.

  • Lindsay, Thomas K., and Gary Dean Glenn. Investigating American Democracy: Readings Core Questions. Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Nagel, Stuart S. Comparing elected and appointed judicial systems. Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage Publications, 1973.