The Yale Law Journal

December 2007

The Constitution Outside the Constitution

Ernest A. Young

117 Yale L.J. 408 (2007).

Countries lacking a single canonical text define the “constitution” to include all laws that perform the constitutive functions of creating governmental institutions and conferring rights on individuals. The British Constitution, for example, includes a variety of constitutive statutes, such as the Magna Carta and the Parliament Acts. This Article proposes a thought experiment: what if we defined the U.S. Constitution by function, rather than by form? Viewed from this perspective, “the Constitution” would include not only the canonical document but also a variety of statutes, executive materials, and practices that structure our government. What these constitutive materials lack is a third characteristic shared by some (but not all) constitutions: formal entrenchment against legal change. Decoupling the entrenching function from the constitutive functions offer a relatively simple answer to one of the most important problems in constitutional theory: how do we explain the evident fact that the structure of our government and the rights of the people have changed pervasively since the Founding, in ways that are simply not reflected in Article V amendments to the canonical text? The answer is that the constitutional order can change in this way because most of it was never entrenched in the canonical text to begin with. Most of the salient changes—the growth of the administrative state, the proliferation of individual entitlements—are changes to our “constitution outside the constitution” that are neither mandated nor forbidden by the canonical document. This functional account of constitutionalism also has implications for constitutional doctrine and scholarship. It tends to undermine doctrinal prescriptions grounded in a sharp dichotomy between constitutional and statutory claims, and it suggests that basic constitutional values—such as federalism or concern for individual rights—are relevant to statutory construction. Finally, the functional account suggests a broader set of concerns for constitutional law teaching and scholarship.