On the Interpretability of Law: Lessons from the Decoding of National Constitutions

British Journal of Political Science, FirstViewArticle, December 2012

University of Chicago Institute for Law & Economics Olin Research Paper No. 624

27 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2012  

James Melton

University College London - School of Public Policy

Zachary Elkins

University of Texas, Austin

Tom Ginsburg

University of Chicago Law School

Kalev H. Leetaru

University of Illinois

Date Written: December 18, 2012

Abstract

An implicit element of many theories of constitutional enforcement is the degree to which those subject to constitutional law can agree on what its provisions mean (call this constitutional interpretability). Unfortunately, there is little evidence on baseline levels of constitutional interpretability or the variance therein. This article seeks to fill this gap in the literature, by assessing the effect of contextual, textual and interpreter characteristics on the interpretability of constitutional documents. Constitutions are found to vary in their degree of interpretability. Surprisingly, however, the most important determinants of variance are not contextual (for example, era, language or culture), but textual. This result emphasizes the important role that constitutional drafters play in the implementation of their product.

Suggested Citation

Melton, James and Elkins, Zachary and Ginsburg, Tom and Leetaru, Kalev H., On the Interpretability of Law: Lessons from the Decoding of National Constitutions (December 18, 2012). British Journal of Political Science, FirstViewArticle, December 2012; University of Chicago Institute for Law & Economics Olin Research Paper No. 624. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2191145

James Melton

University College London - School of Public Policy ( email )

29/30 Tavistock Square
London, WC1H 9QU
United Kingdom

Zachary Elkins

University of Texas, Austin ( email )

Austin, TX 78712
United States

Tom Ginsburg (Contact Author)

University of Chicago Law School ( email )

1111 E. 60th St.
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Kalev H. Leetaru

University of Illinois ( email )

601 E John St
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

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