Autonomy and Isomorphism: The Unfulfilled Promise of Structural Autonomy in American State Constitutions

38 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2014 Last revised: 24 Oct 2014

James A. Gardner

University at Buffalo Law School

Date Written: February 5, 2014


In the American system of federalism, states have almost complete freedom to adopt institutions and practices of internal self-governance that they find best-suited to the needs and preferences of their citizens. Nevertheless, states have not availed themselves of these opportunities: the structural provisions of state constitutions tend to converge strongly with one another and with the U.S. Constitution. This paper examines two important periods of such convergence: the period from 1776 through the first few decades of the nineteenth century, when states were inventing institutions of democratic governance and representation; and the period following the Supreme Court’s one person, one vote decisions in the early 1960s, when the Court’s destruction of the existing constitutional model created an important opportunity for states to experiment with alternative forms of legislative representation. In the first period, initial innovation and diversity were followed quickly by convergence and isomorphism; and in the second period, no burst of innovation occurred at all. After reviewing studies of institutional isomorphism and policy diffusion from other fields, the paper concludes that the facts best fit explanations based on the resort by constitutional drafters to well-known patterns of non-rational decision making such as “availability” and “anchoring” heuristics. American state constitutions thus likely display little diversity in their structural provisions not because prevailing models have proven superior to the alternatives, but because imitating the choices of seemingly similar entities is a common way to dispatch cognitively challenging tasks.

Keywords: State constitutions, federalism, representation, isomorphism, legislature

Suggested Citation

Gardner, James A., Autonomy and Isomorphism: The Unfulfilled Promise of Structural Autonomy in American State Constitutions (February 5, 2014). 60 Wayne Law Review 31; SUNY Buffalo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-016. Available at SSRN:

James A. Gardner (Contact Author)

University at Buffalo Law School ( email )

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