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As far as I know, the US is the only country in the world that has surrounded their constitution with a "don't touch, just reinterpret" veil of protection.

I live in a country where changing the constitution happens every once in a while, and often is necessary to solve (often idiotic) problems arising from misformulation, blatant anachronism or other forms of legal mismatches with the real world. Such changes are subject to major scrutiny (e.g. 2/3 majority required to pass), and definitely not easy to pass through parliament. Making this impossible seems excessively conservative, and somehow assumes the constitution is special and can never be made better.

Is there a mechanism (aside from amendments, which, well, can only amend) that allow legislators to update the single most important legal text of the US? Various amendments can also become outdated in their formulation or at least contraproductive because the interpretation changed. It seems to me the judiciary power has too much wiggle room to change the meaning of passed laws without those changes going through the elected channels (i.e. parliament).

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    US constitution is rather small and contains just main principles. Unlike state constitutions - these are like big foliants - are detailed and may be changed in ways not contradicting to the main law, as I know. Aug 6, 2019 at 8:33
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    "only amend": what kind of change do you imagine would be prohibited by being able "only" to amend the constitution?
    – phoog
    Aug 6, 2019 at 11:20
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    @Relaxed I'm unaware of any body of opinion that holds that having a more comprehensive constitution is more modern.
    – phoog
    Aug 6, 2019 at 11:22
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    I don't think this is long enough for an answer, but consider this: in the first 15 years of the Constitution, it was amended twelve times. In the 200+ years since the 12th amendment, we've only amended it fifteen more times. I'd argue that the Framers intended it be amended frequently, but political realities have relegated amendments to rare, momentous events. Aug 6, 2019 at 18:20
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    @JustinLardinois The Bill of Rights, in terms of its passage, is arguably closer to "one amendment with 10 parts" in that comparison. Still, including those as one, that's three times the Constitution was amended between 1789 and 1805 (one every five years), a pace that has not since kept up.
    – Jimmy M.
    Aug 6, 2019 at 18:43

5 Answers 5

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Is there a mechanism (aside from amendments, which, well, can only amend) that allow legislators to update the single most important legal text of the US?

The portion that I bolded is where you are incorrect. Amendments can not only amend the text, they make any change to it at all.

The 17th Amendment effectively overwrote the first two clauses of Article I, Section 3, in making Senators directly elected instead of appointed.

The 21st Amendment effectively deleted the 18th Amendment.

I also would would dispute your implicit claim that, were it not for the process in Article V being really hard, it would be really easy to “modernize” parts of the Constitution that you think would need modernizing. The fact is that Americans themselves don’t agree on whether or not “anachronisms” actually are anachronistic, and that is why it is hard to change them.

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    The reason article V requires such a difficult process to amend the constitution is to avoid situations such as the one currently prevailing in the UK in which a single vote by a slim majority can cause major fundamental change to the political system, or one that might prevail anywhere in which political opinion might oscillate from a slim majority in favor of something to a slim majority opposed to it, or one such as that in 1930s Germany where a small number of people might amend away the checks and balances to consolidate their power.
    – phoog
    Aug 6, 2019 at 11:28
  • I think OP's confusion might be due to the fact that US constitutional amendments don't alter the existing text of the Constitution, but rather add additional text to the end (which, you point out, has the same effect, especially when the new text contradicts the old text).
    – PersonX
    Aug 6, 2019 at 17:20
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    @DenisdeBernardy You mean on important topics like how much liberty a society should have? I am very glad that the United States is stuck in the 18th century on that and has not advanced to the horrors of the 20th.
    – Joe
    Aug 6, 2019 at 18:31
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    @Joe: More like the fact that those with darker skin than you are happy that the constitution evolved -- however slower attitudes are turning out to be. Aug 7, 2019 at 3:40
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    There is one restriction on what amendments can do: no amendment can deny equal representation of states in the senate. Whether this restriction can be amended remains an open question. Aug 7, 2019 at 5:05
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Right from the start, you begin with an assumption which must be challenged: "don't touch, just reinterpret". In fact, the constitution of the United States of America is not supposed to be reinterpreted. The supreme court is supposed to judge based on their best effort at deciding what the original authors' intent were.

Is there a mechanism to update it? Yes, the constitution can be changed in any way imaginable or even completely deleted. This has happened, as you suggested, with amendments - these amendments could change it in any way whatsoever.

Fortunately, from the writings of the founders in the constitution and other supporting documents (eg: declaration of independence, essays such as the federalist papers), we still have a reasonably good idea of the original intents, and those intents are still valid.

The constitution and its early amendments provided protections that we still make use of today. If anything, there is a problem with hypocrisy where the protections are not properly adhered to. The slavery issue, for example, is something which should have been a non-issue, but many European-Americans did not provide others with the legal protections that they were due. Later equality amendments then made the protections more explicit. What anachronism do you think that you have found? I'd have to take another look, but I don't remember anything in the constitution being anachronistic.

The constitution is not perfect at all, and many US citizens would like to have it amended. But then there is a big problem: if the constitution is easily amended, then things can easily become much worse.

Lastly, you seem to be suggesting that fixing an anachronistic constitution is more important than fixing a problematic constitution. You are free to have the opinion that "fitting in" is the most important metric for a good constitution, but many millions of people will disagree with that.

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The reason it is difficult to change the Constitution is by design. The purpose is to prevent the rights guaranteed by it, from being erased by something so whimsical and fleeting as the majority opinion. States agreed to join the Union and cede authority to the government because the Constitution was/is difficult to change.

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Constitutional amendments in the US face an additional barrier which they require in very few other federal republics: Ratification by the legislature of 3/4 of the federal states. That means after passing two chambers of the US congress with 2/3 majority (which is pretty standard for constitutional changes in most democratic republics) it needs to pass at least 38 of 50 more legislatures with simple majority.

The states are not even obligated to vote on an amendment immediately. They can postpone that debate and vote until it is politically opportune for them to have it. The result is that some constitutional amendments are stuck in that process for a very long time. A good example is the Equal Rights Amendment which is still waiting for approval (or explicit disapproval) by a couple states since 1972.

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    The 27th amendment was ratified in 1992 - having started the process in 1789. So I think the Equal Rights Amendment has a way to go before it sets any records. :-) More seriously, a number of more recent proposals have set a 7-year time limit for ratification, to prevent situations like this happening again. Aug 6, 2019 at 12:21
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    The ERA's window for approval has expired. Aug 6, 2019 at 12:33
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    @DrunkCynic Congress extended the window once, so they can extend it again. And it hasn't stopped Nevada and Illinois from ratifying it in the past 2 years.
    – Philipp
    Aug 6, 2019 at 15:25
  • And that is nearly the edge of the entire Constitutional mess that is the ratification process for the ERA. Rescinded ratifications et al. Aug 6, 2019 at 15:45
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To get a constitution passed at all, it could not have been as comprehensive as the whole US Code is today. It had to set up a framework that was relatively hard to change, which (the founders hoped) would incorporate solutions to the things they saw that were wrong with their old systems.

Any system will eventually suffer from anachronisms ("enormities", to use Toynbee's word). That is why the constitution can be amended. But it isn't easy because they wanted changes to be more consensual than impulsive or imposed by a few.

As it has aged, the courts have assumed more power, and begun legislating around things the judges don't like. This is a problem also. No system made up of humans is going to be perfect, but I think it has provided great liberty for many people for quite a while.

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    I will preface this by saying its not quite helpful that the question itself barely masks an opinion. However, there are many assertions in this answer that seem to be opinion as well. Something to improve this answer is to replace (or bolster) an opinion with "considered by <group of people knowledgable on subject>" and a link to said consensus.
    – isakbob
    Aug 6, 2019 at 18:19

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