J.H. Snider's Blog

Book Review: The New York State Bar Association’s “Making a Modern Constitution”

by | Apr 20, 2017

Albany’s insular, mutual backscratching, public policy community led to this book’s ethical failings–but that shouldn’t deter readers.


Making a Modern Constitution, published by the New York State Bar Association

Making a Modern Constitution, published by the New York State Bar Association

We all take for granted that business people and politicians don’t usually attribute their competitors’ ideas. Moreover, we understand that it would be foolish for them to act any differently.

Less so with public policy and legal experts, who are much more likely to make a pretense of scholarly attribution. Take the new book, Making a Modern Constitution, published by the New York State Bar Association.

Here, I’ll speak from personal experience.

I am listed as a co-author in this book’s print edition, and in both the print and online editions I’m listed as the second co-author of one of the book’s sections.

First off, this attribution was striking because I wasn’t told about it until after the book was published. That included not being asked how or what I wanted to contribute to the book.

Specifically, I wasn’t asked whether I wanted to:

  • Contribute the contents of my website, The New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse:
    1. for reprinting in this book,
    2. without offering me the opportunity to sign away my rights to anything I contributed,
    3. with edits that I did not want and would not have approved, including the deletion of my four op-eds–some strongly critical of the New York State Bar Association’s constitutional convention reform proposals–from the bibliographic listing under my name,
    4. with a section co-author who didn’t consult with me and I would not have approved of, and
    5. unlike other online and print sources in this book, without either a link or citation to the source from which my contribution was copied and pasted.
  • Without scholarly attribution, contribute to this book and another closely related book the research from my widely distributed scholarly paper, subsequently published by the Journal of American Political Thought, Does the World Really Belong to the Living? The Decline of the Constitutional Convention in New York and Other U.S. States 1776-2015.

Now it gets weird. The online promotional materials for the print edition drops my name from the list of co-authors.  And since that’s also the promotion for the online (e-book) edition, presumably removes my co-authorship attribution from the masthead (again, without any communications from or to me) but keeps the author bios section (the second to last page of the book) while, remarkably, excluding from my bio any mention of my affiliation with the source of the book’s verbatim copying from my website, The New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse.

What’s going on here?  It appears that whoever started down the path of using my work without credit continued down that path as the book evolved.  Most remarkable is that they continued down that path even after the book’s print version was published.

Don’t get me wrong.  This book is a very useful resource, including identifying many parts of New York’s Constitution in need of reform.  And thanks in part to it, my guess is that New York, come November 7, 2017, will have a better informed electorate on this type of referendum than any other state since the early 1980s.  Even if I wasn’t asked, I’m pleased to have my name attached to this book; pleased that my research may have contributed to it in some small way; and pleased that the featured home page photo from my website, which I found at the New York Public Library (special thanks go to the New York Public Library for making this photo available), was also used as the cover photo for this book. Despite this, I also feel I have legitimate reason to feel ill-used. Moreover, other authors should also feel ill-used. Chapter 4, notably, is a masterpiece of the citeless cite.

Should the authors be held to high standards of academic research integrity? Probably not, as one wouldn’t expect high standards from a trade association publication. Some might even argue that the low standard of a commercial lawyer publishing a brief on behalf of a client is adequate. But because of the book’s chosen authors and their many scholarly references and affiliations, there is an implicit claim of high standards. More surprising is that this book’s companion book, published by SUNY Press, has a similar ethical lapse, albeit executed with more finesse.

What explains the foul scholarly stench this book emits, admittedly by only a small fraction of its authors? I’d suggest the primary culprit is the culture of mutual backscratching among the Albany set that championed it. Academic affiliations or not, such mutual backscratching is a professional hazard for trade associations, think tanks, advocacy groups, and academics that thrive in Albany, partly because of the degree to which their success in the public policy arena depends on absorbing Albany’s mores centered on power and self-promotion rather than truth.

Of course, as these savvy mutual backscratchers know, general readers could care less about the fine details of scholarly attribution, even if such attribution is essential to the long-term progress of science and public policy. All such readers will care about is that this book is indeed a very useful resource—and one I highly recommend—for those interested in context to understand the upcoming convention referendum.

However, when an academic association such as the New York State Political Science Association thoughtlessly but also very conveniently endorses academics and institutions that demonstrate the worst of this mutual backscratching research ethics, an important line is crossed.

I do have one major substantive criticism of the book: its lack of fresh reform ideas (see my op-ed series published in the Gotham Gazette on New York’s mandarin constitutional convention culture). Too many of its ideas have become stale since they were first proposed decades ago, which is ironic for a book titled “Making a Modern Constitution.”  The insularity and me-tooism generated from a mutual backscratching culture may partly explain this failure.

Making a Modern Constitution (456 pages), copyrighted by the New York State Bar Association, costs $30 in print or online; $20 if you’re a member of the New York State Bar Association.  The print order form is here; the online one here.  The companion book published by SUNY Press, New York’s Broken Constitution (340 pages), lists for $29.95.


–J.H. Snider, the editor of the New York State Constitutional Convention Clearinghouse, is a former fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which “seeks to advance teaching and research on ethical issues in public life.”