Everything You Wanted to Know about Constitutions but Were Afraid to Ask

Everything You Wanted to Know about Constitutions but Were Afraid to Ask

In one of his pithier moments, Alexander Hamilton, l’enfant terrible of the American Founding Fathers, reflected on the potential shelf-life of the recently ratified U.S. Constitution: "So long as we are a young and virtuous people, this instrument will bind us together in mutual interests, mutual welfare, and mutual happiness. But when we become old and corrupt, it will bind us no longer."

Kudos, then, to the United States, whose constitution has exceeded Hamilton’s expectations, remaining in force for nearly twelve-score tumultuous years and counting. In part because of this success, having a written constitution has now become a sort of political gold standard for countries around the world (and seems very likely to continue being so for the foreseeable future).

This week, Constitute, an ambitious new initiative by the Comparative Constitutions Project in conjunction with Google Ideas (the tech company’s in-house think tank), has made those 160-odd (in some cases truly odd) governing documents currently in effect worldwide accessible to a global audience. The site offers users the ability to access either an entire constitution by country name and date, or to peruse the documents by particular themes. Constitute aficionados can thus familiarize themselves with constitutional standards for hundreds of matters ranging from "indigenous rights" to minimum age requirements for constitutional court judges.

Current events make this initiative especially timely. Between five and ten brand-new national constitutions are produced every year, to say nothing of numerous revisions and amendments. And while they occasionally take shape around the birth of some new polity like South Sudan, or aspirational countries like Sahrawi, the great majority of these constitutions are written to replace failed predecessors. Soon, the site should also be adding these unsuccessful ancestors to the mix. Given the propensity among certain countries for rewriting their constitutions many times over (the current titleholder being the Dominican Republic, which has done so 32 times), this will eventually mean literally hundreds of obsolete constitutions — to say nothing of similarly extinct fundamental charters for ex-states like Yugoslavia.

In a sense, Constitute inadvertently spotlights the need to avoid constitutional obsolescence precisely through its occasional omissions. Just consider the poignant void between Ecuador and El Salvador: It was just last year that Egypt’s then-government haphazardly drafted and unilaterally ratified a constitution that was soon destined to fall into abeyance. Similar gaps where Tunisia and Libya ought to be likewise remind us of just how slow and frustrating the constitution-drafting process can be for many countries currently attempting to negotiate a tenable basic law — preferably one inclusive enough to avoid Egypt’s fate.

Tom Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and co-director of the Comparative Constitutions Project, explained the philosophy behind Constitute in a phone interview: "Most people who are drafting constitutions have never done so before and hope to never have to do it again. We seek to empower both potential constitutional drafters and their citizens, so as to better inform the choices they will have to make to establish and preserve lasting national constitutions. With Google’s help, we’ve been able to do just that."

And yet, beyond the admittedly niche interest of comparative legal scholars and constitutional drafters, Constitute should also prove a useful tool to those journalists, writers, human rights lawyers, and activists seeking to hold countries accountable for how well they follow their own laws. It will also help provide a better and more thorough understanding of regional and international trends involving individual rights or civil procedure.

Free and accurate translations of constitutions, particularly those of smaller or more obscure states, can be hard to come by, and constitutional revisions can be harrowing to track. As such, a site like Constitute promises enormous value to those who would seek to keep governments honest, for, ultimately, there is no guarantee that the course of a nation will actually reflect its constitutional design.

How better to understand sensational trials — like the conviction of the Pussy Riot musicians for "hooliganism" or of Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy — than by contrasting observed legal realities with the actual rights and procedures nominally guaranteed to all Russians or Malaysians under their respective constitutions?

For that matter, North Korea’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression and religion while also promising fair trials and political rights. (Notwithstanding unofficial ambassador Dennis Rodman‘s attestations to the contrary, if you believe these guarantees are upheld, I have a friendship bridge to sell you….)

Yet while the respective texts of such sham constitutions, habitually ignored by their custodians, may seem irrelevant, they can often prove decisive. During the Helsinki Process of the 1980s, citizens in Soviet Bloc countries were often able to draw attention to such discrepancies — the law as written vs. the law as lived — to powerful effect.

It is by highlighting such contrasts that people without any formal legal training can best hope to identify government overreach and help to spark change. At best, Constitute can help fulfill this vital role while likewise offering valuable information on norms and best practices to those who might someday hope to reassemble the shattered foundation of some old system into a stronger and more enduring edifice.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.