Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Virtual Bookshelf–Siren Songs or Legal Authority?: A Brief Review of “Constitutional Preambles,” by Wim Voermans, Maarten Stremler and Paul Cliteur

Richard Albert, Boston College Law School

Samoa recently amended its constitution to declare itself a Christian state. For some, this was a curious move given that Samoa’s preamble already proclaims Christianity as the national religion. Why, then, was the amendment necessary? A recent article explains:

Samoa already had a reference to Christianity in the preamble to its Constitution, which declared that the Samoan government should conduct itself “within the limits prescribed by God’s commandments,” and that Samoan society is “based on Christian principles.”  … However, a preamble to a constitution is generally seen as a broad symbolic national statement, one of historical or cultural significance, rather than a legislative tool. What Samoa has done is shift references to Christianity into the body of the constitution, giving the text far more potential to be used in legal processes.

Samoa’s Christianity amendment draws our attention to the purpose and authority of constitutional preambles. Are they simply lofty words–a siren song of constitutions–without real world effect, or do they have a meaningful impact on the legal and political orders of any given jurisdiction?

In their new book on Constitutional Preambles: A Comparative Analysis (Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd 2017), Wim Voermans, Maarten Stremler and Paul Cliteur invite constitutional scholars to think more deeply about preambles. They examine roughly 200 preambles from around the world in an effort to enhance our traditional understanding of preambles. In their own words:

Preambles deal with beliefs and try to instill them in heads and hearts of the people. Not only do they deal with the commonly held beliefs, but also, and especially so, with the individually held ones. As siren songs, preambles try to connect the imagined ideals and beliefs of the constitutional world with the individual’s world. (p 151)

However preambles may also serve functions that extend beyond these declarations of principles devoid of legal power. For instance, the authors explain that although in the United States the preamble “cannot be considered as an independent source of law … . In France, by contrast, the Constitutional Council has declared the preamble to be an integral part of the constitution and has used it directly to review the constitutionality of legislation.” (p 4)

The authors show also that preambles are sites where designers have formally entrenched fundamental principles, others serve a distinctly expressive function related to values or identity, and still others may serve an educational function as a “bridges in time” connecting the present to the historical context from which the constitution emerged.

As new states establish constitutions and existing ones reform their own, this new book reminds us that “all preambles indicate, in one way or another, the source of authority of the constitution.” (p 153)

In their new book, Voermans, Stremler and Cliteur shine a light onto an often overlooked aspect of constitutional study and lay a strong foundation for further research into the forms and functions of constitutional preambles.



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