223 years ago today, the American public woke up to a newly ratified Bill of Rights. Since then, not much has changed to the text of the U.S. Constitution. Not so in other places, where some nation’s constitutions typically undergo nearly constant tinkering. For today’s drafters, there is no reason to reinvent the constitutional wheel, which is why some of us created Constitute, a Web site for drafters in constitutionally “active” countries. Constitute assists the age-old process of searching and analyzing constitutional text from other jurisdictions.
Today marks a major upgrade to the site with a new look, new features and a new “view” of constitutional text (more on that in a second). But the basic functionality remains the same. Take any of the 330 constitutional “problems” cataloged on Constitute. For example, secession, which has been on my mind this fall after referenda in Catalonia and Scotland. In that case, you might be surprised to learn that 22 constitutions contemplate some sort of “divorce” process in their covenants. That list includes Article 73 of the Ukrainian constitution, which requires very clearly that any alterations to the territorial boundaries be approved by an “all-Ukrainian” referendum. I suspect that last May’s referenda on independence in two Ukrainian regions would not meet that standard.
That sort of search was what Constitute was built to do. Rip any constitutional topic from the headlines, from your research, or from your dinner conversation, and give it a go. Are you anything like former Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens in that you envision language on campaign finance in the U.S. Constitution? You might start by visiting Constitute and analyzing how other countries have tackled the issue.
You’re not limited to the inventory of topics on the site’s menu. Many more topics are incorporated into the “ontology” (essentially, a web of concepts) that powers the search functionality. Or, just search for your own terms. A search on “Internet” reveals that only four constitutions even mention the word, and one of them (Myanmar) has one of the lowest rates of Internet penetration in the world.
The analysis of texts on the site is easy. You can “pin” your favorite excerpts, searches, or comparisons for further analysis or reading, or even export the pinned collection directly to Google Docs for collaboration with your drafting “committee” members (or your students, friends and colleagues). Everything on the site is “deep-linked,” which means that the URL for everything that you discover on the site — your search results, a particular constitutional excerpt, or your favorite constitution — is stable and sharable. You might, for example, want to share or publish a link to Japan’s famous Article 9, renouncing war. Data analysts will also appreciate the multiple ways you can download and query the data underlying the site.
My favorite upgrade to the site is a new way to compare constitutions and their provisions side by side. Suppose that you wanted to review some recent Arab Spring constitutions. You can stack them side by side and compare their provisions on any topic, either in the context of the rest of the constitution or in isolation. It is always fun and informative to see how drafters have borrowed from one another, and there is no substitute for a side-by-side view of these choices.
The Arab Spring reminds me of one of the most ambitious changes to the site — a fully functioning version of Constitute with a large subset of 54 constitutional texts in Arabic, most of them translated, edited and re-edited with help from our partners at International IDEA. Our assumption behind Arabic Constitute is that constitutional language is difficult enough in one’s native language. Who wants to sift through them in another language? Besides, constitutions were meant for ordinary people to read and interpret, not just cosmopolitan scholars and lawyers conversant in English.
Of course, not all constitutions are written in a simple and stark Hemingway-like style, for all of us to digest. Indeed, some clauses — such as our Second Amendment — may be written too starkly. Regardless, the genre deserves a closer look. The writing in those documents matters enormously in some countries, and where it doesn’t, it makes for extremely interesting fiction.
Zachary Elkins is a political scientist at the University of Texas-Austin, and one of the creators of Constitute.