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Mila Versteeg

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Debating the Declining Influence of the United States Constitution: A Response to Professors Choudhry, Jackson, and Melkinsburg

David S. Law, Mila Versteeg

This brief essay responds to the commentaries by Professor Choudhry, Professor Jackson, and Professors Elkins, Ginsburg, and Melton (“Melkinsburg”) on our article, The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution. We agree with much of the substance of their thoughtful commentaries, especially their calls for methodological pluralism and broader-ranging empirical research. Some of our differences, meanwhile, are matters of emphasis and framing. For example, their point that the U.S. Constitution remains influential upon constitution writing at a high level of abstraction is one that we make ourselves. We also emphasize, however, that highly abstract similarities are no indication that constitutional drafters in other countries find the U.S. Constitution a useful or attractive model to emulate as a practical matter.

Our most significant disagreement lies with two of Melkinsburg’s arguments. First, they contend that we have misinterpreted our empirical findings of declining similarity to the U.S. Constitution as evidence of declining influence. We reject their suggestion, however, that the U.S. Constitution can only be said to have lost influence to the extent that its “essential elements” have been repudiated. No definition of a concept such as influence can be proclaimed exclusively correct by fiat. Moreover, their definition comports neither with intuition nor with our goal of identifying where constitutional drafters today look for inspiration.

Second, they argue that the trends we identify as belonging to the late twentieth century are merely continuations of trends that actually began in the mid-nineteenth century. In our view, their analysis gives insufficient consideration to two dynamics that render post–World War II constitutional trends qualitatively distinct from nineteenth-century trends. Those two dynamics are constitutional proliferation, meaning an explosion in the sheer number of constitutions, and constitutional standardization, or the increasing use of increasingly standard constitutional models that bear limited resemblance to the U.S. Constitution. Constitutional drafting today reflects the emergence of pockets of consensus in a densely populated constitutional environment that simply did not exist in the mid-nineteenth century or even the early twentieth century. Any conclusions that Melkinsburg draw from ostensibly global nineteenth-century data are likely to be disproportionately influenced by the atypical experience of Latin American constitutionalism. Our focus, by contrast, is upon a late twentieth-century process of constitutional standardization that ultimately bypassed the U.S. Constitution in favor of a more genuinely global synthesis.

The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution

David S. Law, Mila Versteeg

It has been suggested, with growing frequency, that the United States may be losing its influence over constitutionalism in other countries because it is increasingly out of sync with an evolving global consensus on issues of human rights. Little is known in an empirical and systematic way, however, about the extent to which the U.S. Constitution influences the revision and adoption of formal constitutions in other countries.

In this Article, we show empirically that other countries have, in recent decades, become increasingly unlikely to model either the rights-related provisions or the basic structural provisions of their own constitutions upon those found in the U.S. Constitution. Analysis of sixty years of comprehensive data on the content of the world’s constitutions reveals that there is a significant and growing generic component to global constitutionalism, in the form of a set of rights provisions that appear in nearly all formal constitutions. On the basis of this data, we are able to identify the world’s most and least generic constitutions. Our analysis also confirms, however, that the U.S. Constitution is increasingly far from the global mainstream.

The fact that the U.S. Constitution is not widely emulated raises the question of whether there is an alternative paradigm that constitutional drafters in other countries now employ as a model instead. One possibility is that their attention has shifted to some other prominent national constitution. To evaluate this possibility, we analyze the content of the world’s constitutions for telltale patterns of similarity to the constitutions of Canada, Germany, South Africa, and India, which have often been identified as especially influential. We find some support in the data for the notion that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has influenced constitution making in other countries. This influence is neither uniform nor global in scope, however, but instead reflects an evolutionary path shared primarily by other common law countries. By comparison, we uncover no patterns that would suggest widespread constitutional emulation of Germany, South Africa, or India.

Debating the Declining Influence of the United States Constitution: A Response to Professors Choudhry, Jackson, and Melkinsburg

David S. Law, Mila Versteeg

In Response to:
Comment on Law and Versteeg
Comments on Law and Versteeg’s The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution
Method in Comparative Constitutional Law: A Comment on Law and Versteeg

This brief essay responds to the commentaries by Professor Choudhry, Professor Jackson, and Professors Elkins, Ginsburg, and Melton (“Melkinsburg”) on our article, The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution. We agree with much of the substance of their thoughtful commentaries, especially their calls for methodological pluralism and broader-ranging empirical research. Some of our differences, meanwhile, are matters of emphasis and framing. For example, their point that the U.S. Constitution remains influential upon constitution writing at a high level of abstraction is one that we make ourselves. We also emphasize, however, that highly abstract similarities are no indication that constitutional drafters in other countries find the U.S. Constitution a useful or attractive model to emulate as a practical matter.

Our most significant disagreement lies with two of Melkinsburg’s arguments. First, they contend that we have misinterpreted our empirical findings of declining similarity to the U.S. Constitution as evidence of declining influence. We reject their suggestion, however, that the U.S. Constitution can only be said to have lost influence to the extent that its “essential elements” have been repudiated. No definition of a concept such as influence can be proclaimed exclusively correct by fiat. Moreover, their definition comports neither with intuition nor with our goal of identifying where constitutional drafters today look for inspiration.

Second, they argue that the trends we identify as belonging to the late twentieth century are merely continuations of trends that actually began in the mid-nineteenth century. In our view, their analysis gives insufficient consideration to two dynamics that render post–World War II constitutional trends qualitatively distinct from nineteenth-century trends. Those two dynamics are constitutional proliferation, meaning an explosion in the sheer number of constitutions, and constitutional standardization, or the increasing use of increasingly standard constitutional models that bear limited resemblance to the U.S. Constitution. Constitutional drafting today reflects the emergence of pockets of consensus in a densely populated constitutional environment that simply did not exist in the mid-nineteenth century or even the early twentieth century. Any conclusions that Melkinsburg draw from ostensibly global nineteenth-century data are likely to be disproportionately influenced by the atypical experience of Latin American constitutionalism. Our focus, by contrast, is upon a late twentieth-century process of constitutional standardization that ultimately bypassed the U.S. Constitution in favor of a more genuinely global synthesis.