Skip to main content Accessibility help

Constitutions Unentrenched: Toward an Alternative Theory of Constitutional Design



T his article highlights a gap between a great deal of constitutional theory and a great deal of the practice of democratic constitution-making. Drawing on data from democratic national and state constitutions, we challenge the consensus among constitutional theorists that a central purpose of constitutionalism is the entrenchment (the fortification against future change) of broad principles. The empirical reality is that the majority of democratic constitutions today are subject to frequent revision, and are therefore ill-equipped to facilitate the entrenchment of their contents. To explore the logic of these unentrenched documents, we identify the historical periods in which different geographic regions moved away from highly entrenched constitutions, and we examine the political contexts of these transformations. We find that, in each context, constitution-makers were attempting to limit the discretion of constitutional interpreters and implementers by drafting highly specific texts and by updating them in response to continually changing circumstances.


Corresponding author

Emily Zackin is an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University ( Department of Political, Science 338 Mergenthaler Hall, 3400 N. Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218.
Mila Versteeg is a Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law ( University of Virginia School of Law, 580 Massie Road, Charlottesville, VA 22903.


Hide All
Acemoglu, Daron, Johnson, Simon, and Robinson, James A.. “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.” The American Economic Review 91 (5): 1369–401.
Ackerman, Bruce. 1991. We the People. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press.
Aghion, Phillipe, and Bolton, Patrick. 2003Incomplete Social Contracts.” Journal of the European Economic Association. 1 (1): 3867.
Albert, Richard. 2014. “Constitutional Amendment by Constitutional Desuetude.” American Journal of Comparative Law 62 (3): 641–86.
Albert, Richard. 2015. “How Unwritten Constitutional Norms Change Written Constitutions.” Dublin University Law Journal 38 (2): 387418.
Angell, Alan, Schjolden, Line, and Sieder, Rachel. 2005. The Judicialization of Politics in Latin America. New York: Palgrave-McMillan.
Arantes, Rogério Bastos, and Couto, Cláudio G.. 2012. “Constitutionalizing Policy: the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 and its Impact on Governance.” In New Constitutionalism in Latin America, eds. Nolte, Detlef and Schilling-Vacaflor, Almut. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, pp. 203222.
Arato, Andrew. 2014. “Beyond the Alternative Reform or Revolution: Post Sovereign Constitution Making and Latin America.” Working paper.
Balkin, Jack, and Levinson, Sanford. 2001. “Understanding the Constitutional Revolution.” Virginia Law Review 87 (October): 1045–104.
Balkin, Jack M. 2011. Living Originalism. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University Press.
Bánkuti, M., Halmai, G., and Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2012. “Hungary's Illiberal Turn: Disabling the Constitution.” Journal of Democracy 23 (3): 138–46.
Beard, Charles A. 1913. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Macmillan Co.
Bickel, Alexander M. 1962. The Least Dangerous Branch: the Supreme Court at the Bar of Politics. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Brennan, William J. Jr. 1991. “Why Have a Bill of Rights?Valparaiso University Law Review 26 (1): 119.
Bridges, Amy. 2015. Democratic Beginnings: Founding the Western States. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Buchanan, James, and Tullock, Gordon. 1962. The Calculus of Consent: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Buck, Solon Justus. 1913. The Granger Movement: A Study of Agricultural Organization and its Political, Economic and Social Manifestations, 1870-1880. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Contiades, Xenophon, and Fotiadou, Alkmene. 2013. “Models of Constitutional Change”, In Engineering Constitutional Change A Comparative Perspective on Europe, Canada and the USA, ed. Contiades, Xenophon. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 417468.
Cooter, Robert. 2000. The Strategic Constitution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Cross, Frank B. 2001. “The Error of Positive Rights.” UCLA Law Review, 48 (4), 857924.
Dahl, Robert A. 1957. “Decision-Making in a Democracy: The Supreme Court as a National Policy-Maker.” Journal of Public Law 6 (Fall): 279–95.
Dinan, John J. 2006. The American State Constitutional Tradition. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Dinan, John J. 2007. “Foreword: Court-Constraining Amendments and the State Constitutional Tradition.” Rutgers Law Journal 38 (Summer): 9831040.
Dixon, Rosalind. 2016. “Constitutional Drafting and Distrust.” International Journal of Constitutional Law 13 (4): 819846.
Dixon, Rosalind and Holden, Richard. 2012. “Constitutional Amendment Rules: The Denominator Problem.” In Comparative Constitutional Design, ed. Ginsburg, Tom. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dixon, Rosalind, and Landau, David. 2016. “Competitive Democracy and the Constitutional Minimum Core.” In Assessing Constitutional Performance, eds. Ginsburg, Tom and Huq, Aziz. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp 268–93.
Dworkin, Ronald. 1978. Taking Rights Seriously. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Eaton, Amasa M. 1892. “Recent State Constitutions.” Harvard Law Review 6 (3): 109–24.
Eisenstadt, Todd A. et al. 2015. “When Talk Trumps Text: The Democratizing Effects of Deliberation during Constitution-Making, 1974–2011.” American Political Science Review 109 (03), 592612.
Eisgruber, Christopher L. 2001. Constitutional Self-government. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Elkins, Zachary, Ginsburg, Tom, and Melton, James. 2009. The Endurace of National Constitutions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Elster, Jon. 1979. Ulysses and the Sirens. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Ely, John Hart. 1980. Democracy and Distrust: A Theory of Judicial Review. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Eskridge, William N. Jr., and Ferejohn, John. 2001. “Super-Statutes.” Duke Law Journal 50 (March): 1215–76.
Ferejohn, John. 2002. “Judicial Review in a Global Context.” NYU Journal of Legislation and Public Policies 6: 4959.
Fitzgibbon, Russell H. 1945. “Constitutional Development in Latin America: A Synthesis.” The American Political Science Review 39 (3): 511–22.
Fritz, Christian. 1994. “Rethinking the American Constitutional Tradition: National Dimensions in the Formation of State Constitutions.” California Supreme Court Historical Society Yearbook 1: 103–22.
Fusaro, Carlo, and Oliver, Dawn. 2011. “Changing Constitutions” In How Constitutions Change. Eds. Oliver, Dawn and Fusaro, Carlos. Oxford: Hart Publishing.
Gardner, James A. 1992. “The Failed Discourse of State Constitutionalism.” Michigan Law Review 90 (February): 761837.
Gardbaum, Stephen. 2008. “The Myth and The Reality of American Constitutional Exceptionalism,” Michigan Law Review 107 (3): 391466.
Gardbaum, Stephen. 2013. The New Commonwealth Model of Constitutionalism: Theory and Practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Gargarella, Roberto. 2013. Latin American Constitutionalism, 1810-2010: The Engine Room of the Constitution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gillman, Howard. 2002. “How Political Parties Can Use the Courts to Advance Their Agendas: Federal Courts in the United States, 1875-1891.” American Political Science Review 96 (September): 511–24.
Ginsburg, Tom. 2003. Judicial Review in New Democracies: Constitutional Courts in Asian Cases. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ginsburg, Tom. 2010. “Constitutional Specificity, Unwritten Understandings and Constitutional Agreement. In Constitutional Topography: Values and Constitutions, eds. Sajó, A. and Uitz, R.. Utrecht, the Netherlands: Eleven International Publishing, 6994.
Ginsburg, Tom, and Melton, James. 2014. “Does the Constitutional Amendment Rule Matter at All? Amendment Cultures and the Challenges of Measuring Amendment Difficulty.” University of Chicago Coase-Sandor Institute for Law and Economics Working Paper No. 682 (2D Series).
Ginsburg, Tom, and Posner, Eric A.. 2010. “Subconstitutionalism.” Stanford Law Review 62 (6): 1584–628.
Ginsburg, Tom, and Simpser, Alberto. 2013. Constitutions in Authoritarian Regimes. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ginsburg, Tom, et al. 2009. “Does the Process of Constitution-Making Matter?Annual Review of Law and Social Science 5: 201–23.
Gloppen, Siri, Gargarella, Roberto, and Skaar, Elin. 2004. Democratization and the Judiciary: The Accountability Function of Courts in New Democracies. London: Frank Cass.
Graber, Mark A. 1993. “The Nonmajoritarian Difficulty: Legislative Deference to the Judiciary.” Studies in American Political Development 7 (Spring): 3573.
Griffin, Stephen M. 1996. American Constitutionalism: From Theory to Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hadfield, Gillian K., and Weingast, Barry R.. 2013. Constitutions as Coordination Devices in Institutions, Property Rights, and Economic Growth: The Legacy of Douglass North, eds. Galiani, S. and Sened, I.. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Forthcoming.
Hammons, Christopher W. 1999. “Was James Madison Wrong? Rethinking the American Preference for Short, Framework-Oriented Constitutions.” American Political Science Review 93 (July): 837–49.
Hardin, Russell. 1999. Liberalism, Constitutionalism and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hirschl, Ran. 2004. Towards Juristocracy: The Origins and Consequences of the New Constitutionalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Holmes, Stephen. 1995. Passions and Constraints: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Howard, A. E. Dick. 1968. “’For the Common Benefit:’ Constitutional History in Virginia as a Casebook for the Modern Constitution-Maker.” Virginia Law Review 54 (June): 816.
Issacharoff, Samuel. 2015. Fragile Democracy: Contested Power in the Area of Constitutional Courts. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Jackson, Vicki C. 2008. “What's in a Name? Reflections on Timing, Naming and Constitution-Making.” William and Mary Law Review 49: 1249–305.
Jefferson, Thomas. [1789] 1958. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Boyd, Julian P.. et al., 15: 392–7. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jung, Courtney, Hirschl, Ran, and Rosevear, Evan. 2014. Economic and Social Rights in National Constitutions. American Journal of Comparative Law 62 (4): 1043–98.
Kahana, Tsvi. 2013. “Majestic Constitutionalism: The Notwithstanding Mechanism in Israel.” Israeli Constitutionalism from a Comparative Perspective, eds. Barak, Aaron, Barak-Erez, Daphne, and Spair, Gideon. Oxford: Hart Publishing.
Kaplow, Louis. 1992. “Rules Versus Standards: An Economic Analysis.” Duke Law Journal 42: 557629.
Kapiszewski, Diana, and Taylor, Matthew M.. 2013. “Compliance: Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Explaining Adherence to Judicial Rulings.” Law & Social Inquiry 38 (3): 803–35.
Kelsen, Hans. 1929. “Wesen and Entwicklung der Staatsgerichtbarkeit” in The Guardian of the Constitution: Hans Kelsen and Carl Schmitt on the Limits of Constitutional Law, edited and translated by Vinx, Lars. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Kelsen, Hans. 1931. “Wer soll der Huter der Versfassung Sein?” in The Guardian of the Constitution: Hans Kelsen and Carl Schmitt on the Limits of Constitutional Law, edited and translated by Vinx, Lars. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Klug, Heinz. 2015Constitutional Amendments.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 11: 95110.
Lalander, Rickard. 2012. “Neo-Constitutionalism in Twenty-First Century Venezuela: Participatory Democracy, Deconcentrated Decentralization or Centralized Populism?” In New Constitutionalism in Latin America, eds. Nolte, Detlef and Schilling-Vacaflor, Almut. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
La Porta, Raphael, et al. 2004. “Judicial Checks and Balances.” Journal of Political Economy 112 (2): 445–70.
Law, David S. 2009. “A Theory of Judicial Power and Judicial Review.” Georgetown Law Journal 97: 723801.
Leahy, James E., and Dakota, North. 2003. The North Dakota State Constitution: A Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Lerner, Hannah. 2011. Making Constitutions in Deeply Divided Societies. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Lesaffer, Randall. 2009. European Legal History: A Cultural and Political Perspective, trans. Arriens, Jan. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Levinson, Daryl J. 2011. “Parchment and Politics: The Positive Puzzle of Constitutional Commitment.” Harvard Law Review 124 (January): 657746.
Levinson, Sanford. 1995. “Introduction: Imperfection and Amendability.” In Responding to Imperfection: The Theory and Practice of Constitutional Amendment, ed. Levinson, Sanford. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 312.
Lijphardt, Arend. 1999. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Democracies. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Llewellyn, Karl N. 1930. The Bramble Bush: Some Lectures on Law and Its Study. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lorenz, Astrid. 2005. “How to Measure Constitutional Rigidity: Four Concepts and Two Alternatives.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 17 (July): 339–61.
Lupia, Arthur, et al. 2010. “Why State Constitutions Differ in Their Treatment of Same-Sex Marriage.” Journal of Politics 72 (4): 1222–35.
Lutz, Donald S. 1994. “Toward a Theory of Constitutional Amendment.” American Political Science Review 88 (June): 355–70.
Madison, James, Hamilton, Alexander, and Jay, John. [1788] 2014. The Federalist Papers. Ed. Miller, Jim. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications: 253–7.
Marmor, Andrei. 2007. Law in the Age of Pluralism. New York: Oxford University Press.
McBain, Howard Lee, and Rogers, Lindsay. 1922. The New Constitutions of Europe. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company.
Nardi, Dominic, and Tsebelis, George. 2014. “A Long Constitution is a (Positively) Bad Constitution: Evidence from OECD Countries.” British Journal of Political Science 46 (2): 479–80.
Negretto, Gabriel L. 2014. Making Constitutions: Presidents, Parties, and Institutional Choice in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Niemeyer, E. Victor. 1974. Revolution at Querétaro: The Mexican Constitutional Convention of 1916-1917. Austin: University of Texas Press.
North, Douglass C., and Weingast, Barry R.. 1989. “Constitutions and Commitment: The Evolution of Institutions Governing Public Choice in Seventeenth-Century England.” Journal of Economic History 49 (4): 803–32.
Parenti, M. 2011. Democracy for the Few, 9th Ed. Boston: Wadsworth.
Persson, Thorsten, et al. 1997. “Separation of Powers and Political Accountability.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 112 (4): 1163–202.
Posner, Eric. 2013. The Twilight of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ralston, Hayden. 1922. “New European Constitutions: In Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croates and Slovenes.” The American Political Science Review 16 (2): 211–27.
Raz, Joseph. 2009. Between Authority and Interpretation: On the Theory of Law and Practical Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rodríguez-Garavito, César. 2011. “Beyond the Courtroom: The Impact of Judicial Activism on Socioeconomic Rights in Latin America.” Texas Law Review 89 (7): 1669–98.
Rodríguez-Raga, Juan Carlos. 2011. “Strategic Deference in the Colombian Constitutional Court, 19922006.” In Courts in Latin America, eds. Helmke, Gretchen and Ríos-Figueroa, Julio. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 8198.
Roznai, Yanev. 2013. “Unconstitutional Constitutional Amendments: The Migration and Success of a Constitutional Idea.” American Journal of Comparative Law 61 (3): 657719.
Rubenfeld, Jed. 2008. Freedom in Time: A Theory of Constitutional Self-Government. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Scalia, Antonin, and Gutmann, Amy. 1997. A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law: An Essay. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schauer, Fredrick. 1995. “Amending the Presuppositions of a Constitution.” In Responding to Imperfection: The Theory and Practice of Constitutional Amendment, ed. Levinson, Sanford. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 145163.
Scheppele, Kim Lane. 2006. “Democracy by Judiciary. Or Why Courts Can Be More Democratic Than Parliaments.” In Rethinking the Rule of Law after Communism, eds. Czarnota, Adam, Krygier, Martin, and Sadurski, Wojciech. Budapest: Haworth Press, pp. 295322.
Schwartzberg, Melissa. 2013. Counting the Many: The Origins and Limits of Supermajority Rule (New York: New York University).
Schwartz, Herman. 1999. “A Brief History of Judicial Review.” In The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies, eds. Schedler, Andreas, Diamond, Larry Jay and Plattner, Marc F.. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Sikkink, Kathryn. 2011. The Justice Cascade: How Human Rights Prosecutions are Changing World Politics. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Stelzer, Manfred. 2011. The Constitution of the Republic of Austria: A Contextual Analysis. Portland, OR: Hart Publishing.
Sunstein, Cass R. 1991. “Constitutionalism and Secession.” The University of Chicago Law Review 58 (2): 633–70.
Sweet, Alec Stone. 2003. “Why Europe Rejected American Judicial Review: And Why It May Not Matter.” Michigan Law Review 101 (8): 2744–80.
Tarr, G. Alan. 1998. Understanding State Constitutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tushnet, Mark. 2008. Weak Courts, Strong Rights: Judicial Review and Social Welfare Rights in Comparative Constitutional Law. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Versteeg, Mila, and Zackin, Emily. 2014. “American Constitutional Exceptionalism Revisited.” The University of Chicago Law Review 81: 16411707.
Waldron, Jeremy. 1999. Law and Disagreement. New York: Oxford University Press, 81: 16411707.
Wallis, John Joseph. 2005. “Constitutions, Corporations, and Corruption: American States and Constitutional Change, 1842 to 1852.” The Journal of Economic History 65 (1): 211–56.
Waluchow, Will. 2012. “Constitutionalism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Sept. 11, 2012).
Weingast, Barry. 1997. Political Foundations of Democracy and the Rule of Law. American Political Science Review 91 (2): 245–63.
Whittington, Keith. 1999. Constitutional Interpretation: Textual Meaning, Original Intent, and Judicial Review. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Whittington, Keith E. 2007. Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy: The Presidency, the Supreme Court, and Constitutional Leadership in U.S. History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Whittington, K. E. 2015. “Against Very Entrenched Constitutions.” Wisconsin Law Review Online, 2015, 12–8.
Young, Ernest. 2008. “Constitutive and Entrenchment Functions of Constitutions: A Research Agenda.” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 10 (2): 399411.
Zackin, Emily. 2013. Looking for Rights in all the Wrong Places: Why State Constitutions Contain America's Positive Rights. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Constitutions Unentrenched: Toward an Alternative Theory of Constitutional Design



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed