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What Is the Legislature?

A legislature is the lawmaking body of a nation or its political divisions, such as states or cities. A legislature may be bicameral, having two chambers, or unicameral, having one chamber. It is one branch of virtually all governments, the other branches being the executive and the judiciary. The powers of legislatures vary, depending on the system of government.

The power of a legislature depends partly on the power of other governmental branches on the same level, whether national, state or provincial, or local. For example, in a parliamentary system the legislature is supreme over the executive and judicial branches. The judiciary cannot overrule laws passed by the legislature, and the executive is not a separate branch at all, but is composed of members of the legislature. This is the case in Great Britain, Canada, India, Japan, and several of the new Asian and African states. In contrast, under the presidential system of such nations as the United States and France, the executive and judicial branches perform independent functions, and the powers of these two branches act as a check on the legislature.

National legislatures are generally most powerful in unitary systems, in which the central government has direct authority throughout the nation and subordinate authority is delegated to local bodies. Powerful national legislatures exist in such nations as Great Britain and France. On the other hand, in a federal system the power of the national legislature is limited by the powers of legislatures operating on the state or provincial level. This is the case in such countries as the United States, the Soviet Union, West Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia.

Historically, legislatures are descended from the councils of tribal elders and nobles who advised the chiefs and kings in early times. By the time of the Roman senate the legislature as a law-making body was well defined. Following the fall of Rome and the rise of the medieval feudal system, kings were advised by assemblies of the different classes of society. The assemblies were called estates or parliaments. In some nations there was a great struggle for power between the king and the parliament. By the 18th century the British Parliament had asserted legislative supremacy in the government. Other European states did the same in the 19th century, and the principle of legislative government has advanced in former European colonies in the 20th century.

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