Journal article

Constituent Power and Constituent Authority

(2021) 52 University of Connecticut Law Review 1313


My aim in this Paper is to analyze Professor Richard Kay’s notion of ‘constituent authority’ within H. L. A. Hart’s model of foundations of legal systems. I thus elucidate the relationship between constituent power, Kay’s constituent authority, and Hartian rules of recognition. I begin by distinguishing two understandings of constituent power: de facto and de jure. In general, constituent power is a power to bring about constitutional change that is not a legal power and is not constituted by (grounded in) any legal power. On the first view, constituent power is a factual capacity (e.g. a kind of social “power”) to bring about constitutional change. On the second view, constituent power is a normative (e.g. moral) power to bring about constitutional change. I stress that anyone aiming to apply a normative conception of constituent power needs to grapple with the difficult questions in moral and political philosophy entailed by the necessity of choosing a normative framework.

I then introduce Professor Kay’s notion of “constituent authority,” which—unlike that of constituent power—can account for change of reasons that people have for acceptance of the authority of a constitution adopted at some point in the past. Elucidating Kay’s constituent authority, I argue that it is best understood as a kind of a normative social practice of acceptance of the authority of the makers of (1) an existing constitution or (2) a potential future constitution.

The remaining key definitional question about both constituent powers and constituent authority is: what kind of constitutional change results from an exercise of either kind of a power? Can constituent power (authority) bring about any constitutional change, or is there some definitional restriction? Without giving a definite answer, I show various possible answers to this dilemma. I also argue that one potentially attractive possibility, tying the definition of constituent power or constituent authority to changes of rules of recognition, should be rejected. It should be rejected because it leads to a concept which is likely to be both under- and overinclusive.

Finally, I discuss the possibility of lawful exercises of constituent power (and constituent authority). As I argue, it can even be that a constitutional change through a change of the rule of recognition is both, in a sense, a result of an exercise of a constituent power, and entirely lawful.