The Science of Constitutional Change

Constitutions detail literally what constitutes an entity. In the case of nation-states, formal constitutions describe the fundamental principles by which the state will be governed, the political and legal state institutions, the powers, procedures, and duties of those institutions, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals. The roles of the constitution are several; as a ‘rule book‘ for how the country should operate, as a reflection of the values and character of that country as observed by the rest of the world as well as a means for accountability through international law

Computational approaches offer an attractive alternative lens through which to study comparative law, a precedent that can be expanded to various legal and procedural documents including longitudinal analysis of changing norms and processes. This is particularly valuable for public organisations such as UN agencies that rightfully produce a large number of reports and resolutions to maintain transparency as a public and taxpayer funded organisation.

The hierarchy of constitutional provisions related to education: provisions to the left tend to be adopted before provisions to the right

However, the sheer volume of these documents render it impossible virtually impossible to systematically analyse these corpora beyond studies limited to specific time periods and/or geographies or worse still to anecdote. Given the importance of constitutional amendment processes and the impracticality of manual analysis, a valuable opportunity arises for applying natural language processing, time series analysis and network science.

We demonstrate that two broad mechanisms are at play in the content and dynamics of national constitutions. The first we term network effects which refers to the tendency for countries that have a shared (possibly colonial) history and shared legal system to use similar language as well as to adopt broadly similar provisions. Secondly we consider temporal effects which refers to the tendency for provisions to be adopted with strong time dependencies and independently from the historical structure described above. This includes the preferential adoption of provisions around specific historical events such as wars and concerted policy efforts and changing social norms such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and changing scientific evidence bases related to climate change.