NewYorkUniversity
LawReview

Online Features

2012

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.

Comment on Law and Versteeg

Vicki C. Jackson

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

David Law and Mila Versteeg have used their considerable legal and empirical skills to identify what they provocatively describe as the “declining influence of the U.S. Constitution,” or of what they sometimes call “American constitutionalism.” This claim has been headline-grabbing in important part because of the larger sociolegal context, in which the question of American hegemony in the world of global politics and economics is deeply unsettled. Declining influence in the design of constitutions thus resonates with a larger set of anxieties about the role of the United States in the world.

An alternative to seeing greater variations among constitutional instruments as a sign of decline in the influence of the U.S. Constitution within a framework of power hierarchy and competition, is instead to see the increased variations in a framework of evolution and diffusion, and as a sign of the success—not the failure—of the U.S. constitutionalist project. To read “decline” into greater variation may, then, be simply a reflection of anxieties in other spheres, rather than a troublesome development in its own right. In the rest of this comment, I offer brief thoughts on the influence of the U.S. Constitution and on the challenges of accurately and completely tracking such influence. I close with some questions about whether and why influence matters.

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.

Method in Comparative Constitutional Law: A Comment on Law and Versteeg

Sujit Choudhry

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

Of the many questions raised by David Law and Mila Versteeg’s important article, I want to focus on two. First, as a methodological matter, do they measure constitutional convergence and divergence in the right way? Second, what is the relationship between quantitative, large-n work of the genre represented by Law and Versteeg’s article and small-n, qualitative work that has hitherto been the favored methodological approach in comparative constitutional law and politics?