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Development, Human Rights

Declining influence of the United States Constitution

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The U.S. Constitution has been a respected model for governance around the world for two centuries. According to a 2012 study by scholars from Washington University and the University of Virginia School of Law, as of 1987, 160 of 170 international constitutions were based at least partially on it. But 25 years later, is this still the case as constitutions continue to be written and revised?

Published in the New York University Law Review, “The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution” examines 729 federal constitutions from 188 countries written between 1946 and 2006 for their resemblance to the U.S. Constitution. The similarity of each document to the U.S. version is assessed based on 237 variables, with a specific focus on human rights. The researchers also investigate the constitutions’ resemblance to leading human rights treaties or the more recently drafted or revised constitutions of Canada, Germany, South Africa and India.

Key study findings include:

  • Compared to a “generic bill of rights” compiled from 60 human rights found in more than 70% of the world’s constitutions as of 2006, the U.S. Constitution guarantees relatively few rights. It contains fewer than half (26 of 60) of the provisions of the “generic bill of rights,” such as women’s rights or health care. In contrast, the “U.S. Constitution is, instead, rooted in a libertarian constitutional tradition that is inherently antithetical to the notion of positive rights.”
  • Freedoms of religion, the press and self-expression, a guarantee of equality for all, the right to private property and the right to privacy are found in 97% of constitutions. Rights present in 10% or fewer of these constitutions included those for victims of cruelty, legal protection of fetuses and the right to bear arms. In addition to the United States, the “only other constitutions in the world today that still feature [the right to bear arms] are those of Guatemala and Mexico.”
  • “The 1990s — a period of intense constitution-making activity [in Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe] during which American victory in the Cold War might have been expected to translate into American constitutional influence — actually saw a noticeable decline in average similarity to the U.S. Constitution.”
  • “Whereas the average constitution has a 38% chance of being revised in any given year and is replaced every 19 years, the U.S. Constitution has survived over two centuries and been amended only once in the last 40 years. Critics have thus argued that the U.S. Constitution is in many respects dysfunctional, antiquated and sorely in need of repair.”
  • Overall, the analysis suggests that the “fact that the U.S. Constitution departs in so many ways from the global mainstream hints strongly at the possibility that the U.S. Constitution is not widely emulated.” The research suggests that Canada’s constitution, revised in 1982, is now a leading international model rather than that of the United States.

The authors conclude: “Rather than leading the way for global constitutionalism, the U.S. Constitution appears instead to be losing its appeal as a model for constitutional drafters elsewhere. The idea of adopting a constitution may still trace its inspiration to the United States, but the manner in which constitutions are written increasingly does not.”

Tags: human rights, law, guns, civil rights

    Writer: | Last updated: April 9, 2013

    Citation: Law, David S.; Versteeg, Mila. "The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution," New York University Law Review, June 2012, Vol. 87, No. 3, 762-858.

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    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

    Study analysis

    Read the study titled “The Declining Influence of the United States Constitution.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Read the study-related Common Dreams post titled "The Declining Influence of the U.S. Constitution: Losing Ground to Constitutional Competition."

    1. Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?

    Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example: Does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups, business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?