UVA Law Professor Mila Versteeg Wins Carnegie Fellowship

Professor Mila Versteeg is among the first scholars to use quantitative empirical methods to compare the world’s constitutions.
April 25, 2017

Mila Versteeg, a University of Virginia School of Law professor who studies the world’s constitutions, has been named a 2017 Andrew Carnegie Fellow.

Versteeg is one of 35 fellows nationally to each receive the $200,000 award, given by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to fund significant research and writing in the social sciences and humanities. The fellowship is the most generous stipend of its kind.

“The University is extremely proud of Professor Versteeg’s scholarly accomplishments and congratulates her on winning this competitive fellowship,” said UVA Executive Vice President and Provost Thomas C. Katsouleas. “Out of many strong candidates, we were so pleased to have her represent the University.” 

Versteeg said she is honored to be named a Carnegie Fellow and is grateful to the University and Law School Dean Risa Goluboff for nominating her. She will use the award to expand her research into the world’s constitutions to better understand how constitutional rights are enforced in different countries. To that end, she will spend most of the coming fall traveling to foreign countries to conduct interviews and survey experiments.

“Constitutional rights should protect us from the excesses of unconstrained democracy,” Versteeg said, but “we actually know remarkably little about whether constitutional rights actually make a difference.”

Versteeg, the author or editor of several dozen published works, is among the first scholars to use quantitative empirical methods to compare the world’s constitutions. Her recent insights include the discovery that the U.S. Constitution is declining in influence worldwide, and that constitutional prohibitions of torture aren’t always effective as deterrents. She is currently co-writing a book, “Just Words? The Effectiveness of Constitutional Rights,” to be published by Oxford University Press.

Versteeg holds a doctorate in socio-legal studies from Oxford University, where, for her doctoral dissertation, she read and coded information from all of the world’s constitutions written since World War II. The data has served as the underpinning of much of her subsequent work.

She earned her LL.M. from Harvard Law School and her bachelor’s in public administration and first law degree from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Prior to joining the Law School, Versteeg was an Olin Fellow and Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School.

She was chosen from about 200 candidates, who were nominated for the fellowship by universities, think tanks, publishers, independent scholars and nonprofit organizations nationwide.

Versteeg recently answered several questions about the fellowship for the School of Law.

Q. What research are you planning to pursue with the Carnegie Fellowship?

A. Through a global study of constitutions, I hope to determine how, when and why constitutional rights can constrain governments and positively affect the lives of citizens. I hope to do so through a combination of quantitative statistical analysis and case studies.

Q. Why are you studying this issue?

A. Policymakers, political theorists and lawyers have long viewed constitutional rights as important safeguards against abuses of government power. Though the past decades have produced a wave of democratization, recent events in Turkey, Hungary, Poland and other countries remind us that limited government is a fragile institution. These vulnerabilities are magnified in the face of global threats, such as financial crises, terrorism and an increase in cross-border migration, which often serve as pretexts for power grabs and repression. An important goal of constitutional rights is to guard against abuses of power and undemocratic backsliding by drawing lines that leaders cannot cross. At the same time, constitutional rights are supposed to constrain democracy itself. A bill of rights insulates certain higher values from democratic politics, thus safeguarding political minorities from what John Adams and John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the majority.” As nationalist sentiments are on the rise globally, constitutional rights should protect us from the excesses of unconstrained democracy.

Q. What do we currently know about whether constitutional rights can constrain governments and protect citizens?

A. Given the potential importance of constitutional constraints, we actually know remarkably little about whether constitutional rights actually make a difference. As numerous countries ­— ranging from South Sudan to Myanmar to Iceland — are debating new bills of rights, neither policymakers nor academics know much about the conditions under which rights are effective. While normative and theoretical research is plentiful, there is a dearth of empirical research on whether constitutional rights actually guide and constrain government behavior or ultimately improve realities on the ground.

For example, when a constitution enshrines a prohibition on torture, do governments actually torture less? Or when a constitution promises a right to health care, does that actually increase government effectiveness in delivering health care? Perhaps more importantly, under what circumstances do constitutional rights make a difference, and under what circumstances do they fail? Are some rights more effective than others? In previous work, with my co-author Adam Chilton, I have addressed some of these questions using statistical analysis. But our own analysis leaves many questions unanswered. With the Carnegie Fellowship, I hope to explore these and other questions further.

Q. How will you go about answering this question?

A. In earlier work, I started to explore these questions using statistical analysis. This work was made possible by a novel data set on the content of the world’s constitutions, which I personally assembled. To compile the database, I spent a year in the Oxford Bodleian Law Library reading every constitution written since 1946 and quantifying its content. By contrasting the constitutional rights data with data on actual human rights practices, my co-authors and I have been able to generate some initial insights on whether constitutional rights make a difference.

Using the Carnegie Fellowship, I plan to build on this work and produce further research papers and a book manuscript centered on the question of whether and how constitutional rights make a difference. Specifically, together with my co-author, I plan to perform a number of in-depth case studies of how constitutional rights are enforced in foreign countries, and to conduct representative survey experiments in those countries. Since my earlier research suggests a particularly important role for trade unions and religious organizations in rights enforcement, I also plan to study these organizations by interviewing and surveying its members.

Q. When will you start your research?

A. I will spend most of the fall traveling to foreign countries and performing this research. However, I will still teach two classes in the spring: International Human Rights Law and Comparative Constitutional Law — both are three-credit lecture classes. In addition, I will take a group of students with me on my travels for the Human Rights Study Project, destination still to be determined. Needless to say, I will be excited to share my insights with my students at the Law School.

Media Contact

Mary Wood

Chief Communications Officer University of Virginia School of Law