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Comments on Law and Versteeg’s The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution

Zachary Elkins, Tom Ginsburg, James Melton

In Response to: The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution

It was with great interest that we read David Law and Mila Versteeg’s thoughtful article on the influence of the U.S. Constitution. Their piece contributes some very useful and clearly drawn empirical benchmarks, which will undoubtedly advance the conversation about the historical role of the U.S. Constitution in interesting and even provocative ways. Law and Versteeg provide many empirical nuggets to consider. We take the opportunity here to examine and elaborate upon two of their central themes: (1) the historical trajectory and timing of drift from the U.S. Constitution; and (2) whether such drift should be understood as a decline in influence. In some sense, our analysis complements and extends theirs. Appealing to a broader set of data, we clarify the timing and magnitude of any drift away from U.S. constitutional principles. However, we also offer a very different version of history than they do. If one pushes further than do Law and Versteeg with respect to the conceptualization and measurement of constitutional similarity, two trends are apparent. First, constitutions have incrementally and regularly taken on new bells and whistles; we call this constitutional modernization. Second, despite this modernization, the influence of the U.S. Constitution remains evident; in fact, it has become increasingly more central compared to competing nineteenth-century alternatives.