Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

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


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.

Hide All

Department of Political Science, University College London (email:; Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin; Law School, University of Chicago; and Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively. The authors wish to thank Manuel Balán, Sara Birch, Abby Blass, Rui de Figueiredo, Brian Gaines, Ran Hirschl, Jeffrey Isaacs, Simon Jackman, Roger Noll, John Sides and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. They have appreciated financial support from the National Science Foundation (SES 0648288) and the Cline Center for Democracy. James Melton thanks the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies, Lucca, for additional financial support. Replication data are available on the Comparative Constitutions Project website:

Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Jeffrey Barnes , ‘The Continuing Debate About “Plain Language” Legislation: A Law Reform Conundrum’, Statute Law Review, 27 (2007), 83132

Wim Voermans , ‘Styles of Legislation and Their Effects’, Statute Law Review, 32 (2011), 3853

Cass R. Sunstein , ‘Incompletely Theorized Agreement’, Harvard Law Review, 108 (1995), 1733–72

Peter C. Ordeshook , ‘Constitutional Stability’, Constitutional Political Economy, 3 (1992), 137–75

Barry Weingast , ‘Democracy and the Rule of Law’, American Political Science Review, 91 (1997), 245–63

Rui de Figueiredo and Barry Weingast , ‘Self-enforcing Federalism’, Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, 21 (2005), 103–35

Adam Przeworski , Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Richard H. Fallon , ‘A Constructivist Coherence Theory of Constitutional Interpretation’, Harvard Law Review, 100 (1987), 1189–286

Jed Rubenfeld , Freedom and Time: A Theory of Constitutional Self-Government (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001)

Howard E. A. Tinsley and David J. Weiss , ‘Interrater Reliability and Agreement’, in Howard E. A. Tinsley and Steven D. Brown, eds, Handbook of Applied Multivariate Statistics and Mathematical Modeling (San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 2000), pp. 95124

Matthew Lombard Jennifer Snyder-Duch and Cheryl Campanella Bracken , ‘Content Analysis in Mass Communication: Assessment and Reporting of Intercoder Reliability’, Human Communication Research, 28 (2002), 587604

Michael E. Dewey , ‘Coefficients of Agreement’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 143 (1983), 487–9

Zachary Elkins Tom Ginsburg and James Melton , The Endurance of National Constitutions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Antonin Scalia , ‘The Rule of Law as a Law of Rules’, University of Chicago Law Review, 56 (1989), 1175–88

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 1
Total number of PDF views: 25 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 166 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 26th June 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.