Opening Statements

New website provides searchable database of constitutions

Posted Mar 1, 2014 5:39 AM CDT
By Ed Finkel

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If you find yourself drafting a constitution anytime soon and need ideas, you're in luck. A new searchable database of 189 constitutions from around the world is now online.

Constitutional scholars Zachary Elkins of the University of Texas, Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago Law School and James Melton of University College London created Constitute after receiving a grant from Google Ideas. The site launched last fall.

"We intended it for people who are writing constitutions to pull together excerpts," Elkins says.

Ultimately, he adds, the goal "is to put text in the hands of the people. Constitutional text should be simple so people do not have to rely on constitutional experts who sometimes aren't as expert as they think. ... It's kind of an evolving exercise, much like constitutions themselves."

Constitute users can quickly find relevant passages on a particular subject, based on searchable terms like "right to privacy," and can filter searches by country or date.

Elkins says the site will eventually include the historical texts of constitutions dating back some 200 years. The United States is something of an anomaly, says Elkins, because it still has its original constitution in place. Venezuela, for example, has had 30.

"You see some very significant changes since the earlier texts," Elkins says. "They're no longer broad framework documents—they include everything from, say, sports to health care to anything you can possibly imagine that governments deal with. They've gotten very fine-grained and very detailed and broader in their scope."

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Constitution Mining: New website provides database of constitutions."

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