Politics

Understanding the Constitution Is Hard, This New Website Helps Explain

Cornell University Legal Information Center introduces searchable version of Constitution Annotated

The Constitution of the United States is stored under glass in the rotunda of the National Archives. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

Want to know the parameters of a president’s pardoning power? What about the definition of the emoluments clause? Or what constitutes an impeachable offense?

The Supreme Court decisions that have informed such constitutional questions — all hot topics during the Trump administration— are now easily searchable thanks to a new project by the Legal Information Institute at the Cornell Law School.

The non-profit institute this week, working with the transparency advocacy groups Demand Progress and GovTrack.us, published the first XML version of the Constitution Annotated, a document produced by the Congressional Research Service that analyses more than 9,000 Supreme Court Cases that reference the constitution.

“It’s a document that has been publicly available, but the big difference is how user-friendly this is,” said Neli Karabelova, a communications specialist at the Legal Information Institute. “Especially nowadays when constitutional matters are in the public eye, having a document like this, which is nonpartisan, and comprehensive, we just think it’s important for people to find it easily on the internet.”

The federal government has published and periodically updated annotated decisions of the Supreme Court since 1913. But previous versions have been bulky and cumbersome, Karabelova said.

For decades, the document was published in gigantic, green-bound booklets every ten years, with biannual supplemental citations printed in a pamphlet affixed to the inside cover.

More recently, the Government Publishing Office, which prints and distributes government publications, has released a 2,882-page PDF version online.

Users seeking to access that version from the official congress.gov website are greeted with this message: “The complete document is large (15185 KB PDF), and may take several minutes to download.” An app for mobile devices provides the same PDFs.

The Cornell version is searchable and contains hyperlinks to the Supreme Court Cases it references, footnotes and citations. It is also easier for people with disabilities to read because PDFs are not ADA compliant, Karabelova said.

Daniel Schuman, policy director at Demand Progress, said his group has been pressuring the Government Publishing office for nine years to provide a similar version of the document on its website.

“Since they have not answered those calls, Cornell’s LII has stepped up to the plate,” he wrote in a Medium post.

GPO spokesman Gary Somerset said the current online version was a response to a 2013 congressional directive to make the document available digitally to the public.

 

"GPO is more than willing to explore future projects like this, if asked by the Senate," he said.

 

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