Saturday, September 21, 2019
Since 1913, the Library of Congress has provided a resource for Constitutional scholars, practitioners, and the public, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation, generally known as The Constitution Annotated. According to the Library of Congress, the "Constitution Annotated has served as the authoritative source for the American public to learn about the nation’s founding document alongside Supreme Court decisions that have expounded upon and refined it." The Constitution Annotated thus "provides a comprehensive overview of how the Constitution has been interpreted over time." https://constitution.congress.gov/about/
The Constitution Annotated is a wonderful resource to be sure, as it includes over 2,700 pages of annotations based on SCOTUS opinions and many "plain English" explanations for non-lawyers. The Constitution Annotated also includes helpful tables on the Justices, opinions overruled, and laws held unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, when the only way for most of us to access this resource was in hard-bound versions published every 10 years for Congress, its use was limited. Moreover, while the Library eventually made The Constitution Annotated available online, it did so only as large, non-searchable PDFs on its website and through a clunky app for Apple only. On the other hand, for many years the Library provided Congressional staff an internal, fully-searchable digital version of The Constitution Annotated, including separate webpage sections for each chapter, notes on founding documents, and links to historical and contextual materials.
In a Constitution Day 2019 letter to the Library about The Constitution Annotated, Senators Angus King and Rob Portman explained: “Unfortunately, the public facing version is not . . . lucid.” The Senators noted the 2013 iPhone app, like the Library of Congress public website, displayed "a document longer than the average Bible" as "a slew of PDF pages" that are "impossible" to read "on a phone’s tiny screen." The Senators quoted Thomas Jefferson’s belief every American has an obligation "to read and interpret the Constitution for himself," and urged the Library to make the Congressional portal version available to the public. Specifically, they asked for "a continuously updated structured data file, such as the XML format in which it is prepared, [to] empower researchers and students." https://www.king.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/to-honor-constitution-day-king-urges-library-of-congress-to-make-constitution-annotated-available-to-all-americans.
Shortly after the Senators sent their letter, the Library launched a new website for The Constitution Annotated. While still a work in progress, the new constitution.congress.gov includes many of the searchable and user-friendly features the Senators requested. On the updated site, the Library also explains it will be making more changes in the coming months, as part of a “multi-year project to modernize the Constitution Annotated . . . to better enhance its educational value to a broader audience and to reflect the most recent Supreme Court terms.”
Now, visitors to the site will see separate links for The Annotated Constitution chapters and searchable databases of annotations and opinions. Moreover, the pages are integrated nicely with the Library’s other resources. For example, the homepage has links to interesting material like PDFs of George Washington’s handwritten letters, documents from the Constitutional Convention, and Congressional Research Service bulletins on current areas of debate in Constitutional law.
For anyone practicing or writing about Constitutional law, as well as students of our Constitution--young or less young--this site is a nice resource. Hopefully, the continued updates will be quick and helpful as well. Enjoy this updated spot for SCOTUS opinions, annotations, and historical documents.