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Five Questions with Mila Versteeg

Richard Albert, Boston College Law School

In our recurring I-CONnect feature on “Five Questions,” we invite a public law scholar to answer five questions about his or her research.

This edition of “Five Questions” features Mila Versteeg, Class of 1941 Research Professor of Law and Director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Virginia. Her bio follows below:

Mila Versteeg joined the Law School in 2011. Her research and teaching interests include comparative constitutional law, public international law and empirical legal studies. Most of her research deals with the origins, evolution and effectiveness of provisions in the world’s constitutions. Her publications have, amongst others, appeared in the California Law Review, the New York University Law Review, the University of Chicago Law Review, the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Legal Studies, the American Journal of International Law, and the Journal of Law, Economics and Organizations. A number of her works have been translated into Chinese, Portuguese and Turkish.

In 2017, Versteeg was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow, which provided her with a $200,000 award to expand her research into the world’s constitutions to better understand how constitutional rights are enforced in different countries.

Versteeg earned her B.A. in public administration and first law degree from Tilburg University in the Netherlands in 2006. She earned her LL.M. from Harvard Law School in 2007 and a D.Phil. in socio-legal studies in 2011 from Oxford University, where she was a Gregory Kulkes Scholar at Balliol College and recipient of an Arts and the Humanities Research Council Award.

Prior to joining the Law School, Versteeg was an Olin Fellow and lecturer in law at the University of Chicago Law School. Versteeg previously worked at the U.N. Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute in Turin and at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre in Johannesburg. While at UVA, Versteeg has been a visiting associate professor at the University of Chicago Law School (fall 2013) and Columbia Law School (spring 2016), and a visiting professor at the law schools of Hebrew University, the University of Hamburg (summer 2015) and Tel Aviv University (spring 2017).

1. Tell us about something you are working on right now.

My main project right now is a book manuscript that explores whether and how constitutional rights constrain government behavior. Together with Adam Chilton, I explored this question using statistical methods in two papers which we published in social science journals. The book further explores the mechanisms through which rights make a difference and adds a series of country case studies. I received a Carnegie Fellowship to do this research and I spent most of the fall conducting interviews.

In addition, I am working on a number of smaller projects and a new comparative constitutional law textbook that attempts to be more global and interdisciplinary in its outlook than existing textbooks (forthcoming with OUP and co-authored with Tom Ginsburg, Ozan Varol, David Landau, and Will Partlett).

2. How and when do you write? Do you have a routine or do you write whenever and wherever you find the time?

I write pretty much everywhere but in my office. My house has a little river running next to it, and I love to write there in the company of my dog, Lukkie. I also love to write in coffee shops and on the road: in trains, planes, and hotel lobbies. Wherever I feel inspired, really! When I am in a foreign city, I always make a point of spending the afternoon working in a local coffee shop. (In fact, I am answering these five questions in a coffee shop in Tel Aviv!)

During busy weeks, when the semester is in full swing and there are many demands on my time, I try to stay productive by blocking a few hours in the morning for writing. During these hours, I’ll ignore everything else, which occasionally produces small disasters but which usually allows me to continue to write also during busy parts of the semester.

3. Whose scholarship jumps to the top of your reading list when she or he publishes something new? 

I try to keep a close eye on everything that is happening in the field. Among others, I’ll make sure to read the latest pieces by Ros Dixon, Tom Ginsburg, Ran Hirschl, David Landau, Ozan Varol, David Law, and many others! I further follow the work by empirical political scientists such as Yon Lupu, Katerina Linos, and Beth Simmons.

4. Is there an article or book that influenced you as a law student and that continues today to be an important reference point for you?

There are many. A starting assumption in much of my research is that people respond to incentives, and that constitutions do not enforce themselves. In that sense, I see myself as working in the intellectual tradition of Russell Hardin (and his work on constitutions as coordination devices), Douglass North, and Barry Weingast (credible commitments and focal points).  I think that the research in this tradition has influenced my work more than anything else.

5. What are some of the big questions ripe for inquiry in your area of research interest?

At this time, the question of whether or how constitutions constrain those in power is maybe more important than ever. As nationalist-populist sentiments appear to be on the rise globally, I believe it is important to study whether and how constitutional constraints can protect us from the excesses of unconstrained democracy. Recent events in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, among others, remind us that limited government is a fragile institution.

I think that the well-known metaphor of constitutions as “ropes that tie us to the mast to resist the singing of the sirens” (as per Homer’s story of Ulysses and the sirens) is not that helpful. At best, constitutional constraints can act as “speed bumps,” impeding those looking to free themselves from constitutional constraints. For example, we know that Turkish President Erdogan managed to largely dismantle his country’s constitutional constraints over the course of 15 years. (Earlier this year I gave a lecture in Turkey, where I saw this first-hand.) One of the most important questions for our field now, I believe, is whether, how, and why constitutions slow down those who want to abuse power.

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Published on December 15, 2017
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