‘We the People’ loses appeal with people around the world

Adam Liptak writes: The United States Constitution is terse and old, and it guarantees relatively few rights. The commitment of some members of the Supreme Court to interpreting the Constitution according to its original meaning in the 18th century may send the signal that it is of little current use to, say, a new African nation. And the Constitution’s waning influence may be part of a general decline in American power and prestige.

In an interview, Professor Law identified a central reason for the trend: the availability of newer, sexier and more powerful operating systems in the constitutional marketplace. “Nobody wants to copy Windows 3.1,” he said.

In a television interview during a visit to Egypt last week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court seemed to agree. “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012,” she said. She recommended, instead, the South African Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or the European Convention on Human Rights.

The rights guaranteed by the American Constitution are parsimonious by international standards, and they are frozen in amber. As Sanford Levinson wrote in 2006 in “Our Undemocratic Constitution,” “the U.S. Constitution is the most difficult to amend of any constitution currently existing in the world today.” (Yugoslavia used to hold that title, but Yugoslavia did not work out.)

Other nations routinely trade in their constitutions wholesale, replacing them on average every 19 years. By odd coincidence, Thomas Jefferson, in a 1789 letter to James Madison, once said that every constitution “naturally expires at the end of 19 years” because “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” These days, the overlap between the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and those most popular around the world is spotty.

Americans recognize rights not widely protected, including ones to a speedy and public trial, and are outliers in prohibiting government establishment of religion. But the Constitution is out of step with the rest of the world in failing to protect, at least in so many words, a right to travel, the presumption of innocence and entitlement to food, education and health care.

It has its idiosyncrasies. Only 2 percent of the world’s constitutions protect, as the Second Amendment does, a right to bear arms. (Its brothers in arms are Guatemala and Mexico.)

The Constitution’s waning global stature is consistent with the diminished influence of the Supreme Court, which “is losing the central role it once had among courts in modern democracies,” Aharon Barak, then the president of the Supreme Court of Israel, wrote in The Harvard Law Review in 2002.

Many foreign judges say they have become less likely to cite decisions of the United States Supreme Court, in part because of what they consider its parochialism.

“America is in danger, I think, of becoming something of a legal backwater,” Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia said in a 2001 interview. He said that he looked instead to India, South Africa and New Zealand.

Mr. Barak, for his part, identified a new constitutional superpower: “Canadian law,” he wrote, “serves as a source of inspiration for many countries around the world.” The new study also suggests that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982, may now be more influential than its American counterpart.

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Comments

  1. delia ruhe says:

    Constitutions are only as good as the minds you’ve got for interpreting them. We’ve still got a reasonably reasonable Supreme Court, but that could easily change, since — taking a page from his hero and inspiration, Georgie Bush — the theocon Harper declared it full of “activist judges” and will no doubt be making some changes before we get a chance to toss him out of office.

    But the best thing about our Constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms is that they’re relatively new. They’re not full of anachronisms, such as an anti-sodomy law that can be dredged up for the purpose of inciting hatred. But a relatively modern, reasonable Constitution only means that ruling parties have to spend more time figuring out how to circumvent it.

    The current explosion of misogyny in the US over reproductive rights is permitted by the fact that the American women’s movement failed to get an Equal Rights Amendment passed. That is a tragedy that will continue to deliver waves of uncertainty to American women until it is rectified.

  2. Mark Turner says:

    Ask Mark Stein how great Canadian Free Speech protections are.