Tom Ginsburg on Finding What Makes Constitutions Endure

Finding What Makes Constitutions Endure
Sarah Galer
University of Chicago News Office
September 20, 2010

When the government of Kenya wanted outside advice this year on drafts of the country's new constitution, one of their consultants was University of Chicago Law School professor Tom Ginsburg, one of the world's foremost experts on how to write an enduring constitution.

In a world where an average of 10 new constitutions are created each year, Kenya is not alone in its drafting struggles. In fact, Ginsburg's Comparative Constitutions Project, which he co-directs with Zachary Elkins, a University of Texas political scientist, has found more than 900 national constitutions enacted since 1789. The researchers painstakingly coded that material into an extensive dataset, which is proving invaluable, both to scholars and to countries like Kenya that need practical help with their legal blueprints.

Advising those countries is a weighty business, Ginsburg says, because of the real risk that their constitutions might fail.

"Most constitutions die at a very young age and are replaced often," Ginsburg says. "They are, it turns out, very fragile things."

Another surprising finding of the project is that although the United States has the world's most durable constitution, the American document does not offer other countries a reliable model for success. In fact, the work suggests that constitutions emulating more recent efforts from Mexico or India may stand the best chance of surviving.

Tom Ginsburg


enduring constitutions

It seems obvious that political and "national" issues when a constitution is adopted will be dispositive of the likely durability. It would be interesting to know if this database offers any clue to what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War, and what the data as applied to the Tea Party objectives (states' rights) might imply for the durability of our constitution.


States' rights are not the Tea Party's objectives. Those were the objectives of our founders and they are already in our Constitution.