In the original series, the twelve tribes settled on twelve different planets in the fictional Cyrannus galaxy. The new series has never clarified their relative positions in space; however, Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore has stated that all the colony planets are in the same star system, as described in the original series.
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In the Battlestar Galactica video game, published in 2003, just prior to the release of the reimagined series, the colonies were in one star system called "Cyrannus". The name "Cyrannus" was used in the original series episode "The Long Patrol", but was used by the character Starbuck as the name of the galaxy, not a single star system, although as with most SF shows of that era, much of the terminology used is obscure and self-contradictory. It appears as if the authors were themselves frequently unclear as to what the difference between a solar system and a galaxy was. As yet, the name "Cyrannus" has not been used in the reimagined series.
In the 1978 series, the Colonies were very obviously set in a binary star system, and distinguished between "Inner" and "Outer" colonies. "Inner" colonies orbited the primary star in the system, and "Outer" colonies orbited the other one, though both appeared to be G2 class stars from what little information was visible onscreen. The inner colonies - including Sagitaria and Caprica - were attacked first. By the time the Galactica arrived, the Cylons were already launching their first wave against the outer colonies.
In the novelization of the pilot for the 1978 series, the Twelve Colonies are referred to as "The Twelve Colonies of the Three Suns."
The Quorum of the Twelve (sometimes called the "Council of the Twelve") is the main governing body of the Twelve Colonies. There are twelve members, each representing one colony. There is a president of the Twelve Colonies, who acts as the head of state. There is also a Commander in Chief of the armed forces. The President and civilian government lead the Colonies, unless martial law is declared. After the death of President Adar and the death of the Quorum of the Twelve, the Colonial remnants, under the protection of the Battlestar Galactica were placed under martial law by Commander Adama, the last surviving member of the Pre-Destruction Quorum. Count Baltar, a member of the Quorum who survived due to his treachery, was presumably stripped of his rank in absentia for his gross betrayal of humanity. The Quorum has the power to repeal martial law itself, but after a disastrous attempt at reestablishing civilian rule in the "rag-tag fleet," such matters were dropped for the present.
There is no death penalty, even for treason. The maximum punishment is life imprisonment. Officers of the court in criminal proceedings include 'Opposers' (prosecutors) and 'Advocates' (defense attorneys).
In the 2003 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, the Colonial government is somewhat different. Referred to officially as "the United Colonies of Kobol," the government was established under the Articles of Colonization. There is a Presidency, and a "Political Cabinet" (which include the ministries of Defense and Education), with each ministry headed by a secretary. The Secretary of Education is the 33rd in the order of succession. There is a death penalty, and executions for treason include being vented into space, a punishment implemented by President Laura Roslin and continued by President Tom Zarek during his brief term. The military conducts execution of its personnel via firing squad. Local government includes mayors, of whom President Adar was one before his first term as President of the Twelve Colonies. The Colonial Government appears to include some form of civil religion as noted by the presence of clergy such as the priest Elosha in seasons 1 and 2 of the series. In his blog, Battlestar Galactica's producer Ronald D. Moore indicated that the Colonial government presumably included a larger, still unnamed representative body (most likely the People's Council mentioned in Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II) and an independent judiciary system, as well as another (also unnamed) religious body with an advisory function.
The Quorum of Twelve does exist in the series (an interim one is established a month into the exodus) but its structure and purpose is different. The Quorum's sessions are presided by the President of the Twelve Colonies, who may cast a vote in case of a tie. Each Colony gets a single vote. The functions of the Quorum of Twelve include taking nominations for and electing the Vice President - whether this is common practice or an emergency attribution in the case of a vacant Vice Presidency is not known. Quorum members may run for the Vice Presidency, but must resign their Quorum seat if elected. Given that the Colonies used to be independent nations until a few decades before the Cylon Attack, Ron Moore describes the Quorum of Twelve as a mixture between the United States Senate and the UN Security Council. The Quorum has the power to remove the President from power via a vote of no confidence.
The differences in Colonial government in the 2003 remake stem from the fact that Cylons were created by Man as servants and soldiers, though there are no alien races. The production team has established that the Cylons were used as soldiers in wars between the Twelve Colonies. Indeed, while the Exodus from Kobol was 2,000 years before the final Cylon defeat of the Twelve Colonies in the TV series, the "Articles of Colonization" are stated as being only 52 years old, framed in the early days of the First Cylon War which went on for another 12 years. This is evidenced by statements that different colonies had entirely different governments and laws; for example, Sagittaron was ruled by a corrupt military dictatorship. Further, it is stated that Sagittaron law allows a convict that has served their sentence to regain citizenship, implying that all of the colonies were not ruled by the same law. Another example is that according to Gemenon religious law, children are the property of their parents and abortion is an obscenity.
Due to a lack of a police force within the fleet, both Naval and Marine personnel also serve as law enforcement officials as necessary. According to Ronald D. Moore's own podcast commentary for the episode Kobol's Last Gleaming, the plainclothed Presidential Security Force is intentionally separate from the military, with its members culled from any and all surviving police officers within the fleet.