Knowing the Law

15 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2021

See all articles by Kevin L. Cope

Kevin L. Cope

University of Virginia School of Law

Charles Crabtree

University of Michigan - Political Science, Students

Date Written: January 29, 2021


One important prerequisite to state compliance with higher-order legal rules is a convergence of public opinion on the existence and nature of those rules. We present original data from a nationally representative sample of U.S. residents that captures knowledge of higher-order legal norms, allowing us to explore the plausibility of the hypothesis that people have sufficient knowledge of higher-order law to enforce it. To do so, we polled U.S. residents about their positive and normative views on the existence of sixteen rights and government powers, experimentally manipulating whether the duty or power flowed from constitutional or international law. We also asked respondents to state how certain they were about their positive knowledge. Our key finding is that knowledge on both constitutional and international law is limited, and, relatedly, that there is not much agreement among respondents on what either requires. Yet constitutional knowledge is higher than international legal knowledge, especially for some provisions, like the right to bear arms and the right to a jury trial. These findings underscore and provide an explanation for why coordinating to deter and punish constitutional violations is difficult.

Keywords: constitutional law, international law, experiment

Suggested Citation

Cope, Kevin L. and Crabtree, Charles, Knowing the Law (January 29, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Kevin L. Cope (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States


Charles Crabtree

University of Michigan - Political Science, Students ( email )

Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States

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