In honor of Constitution Day this year, the Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service and and the Government Printing Office released an iOS app (Android is on the way) that is the full text of the 2,860-page The Constitution Annotated. In the past, if you wanted to own it, you paid $290 and lugged around 10 pounds of book. So what’s the big deal about having a digital version besides the weight factor? A couple really huge things, actually:

First, it takes the price of the content way down — to nothing, to be exact. It also allows users to jump to exactly the section that they need without sifting through the whole book.

It also makes the volume much easier to update. Researchers worked for a year to hand-index all the information in the book into fully searchable, shareable format. With that groundwork laid, the document can be updated much more quickly and more frequently.

Lawyers might sneer at the old-style interface of all this – more on that later – but driving the cost down to zero and making it available on your phone or tablet makes it a document that anyone can read, lawyer or no, and that’s exactly what we should hope for in terms of creating a civic-minded populace.

I’m not familiar with how the print version is organized, but I assume the app provides a browsing structure that I assume is akin to the order of the printed version. There’s an unannotated version of the Constitution that is followed by a largely-unannotated version of the Amendments. There are footnotes in that section, but they refer solely to how and when each Amendment was ratified. There’s a very brief section on proposed Amendments that were never ratified, and then there’s the meat of the document – a 2,200 page essential treatise on Constitutional law organized to correspond with the structure of the Constitution. I picked an Amendment not entirely at random – the Fifteenth – and read the section on federal remediation legislation designed to address infringement upon voting rights. The annotation provided a relatively comprehensive overview of the history of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and is current enough to include this past summer’s Shelby County v. Holder decision. Unsurprisingly, as a product of Congress and the GPO, the annotation is steadfastly neutral even while discussing explosive cases like Holder. It refers to that decision, delicately, as a “significant retrenchment of the application of the Voting Rights Act.”

Is this the document you’d go to if you were already an expert or longtime practitioner in a particular Constitutional field? Not at all, but you might turn to it to get a 50,000-foot overview of something you’ve begun to tackle. A non-lawyer might find the text a little dense (and a lot dry) but the organization makes it fairly intuitive even for a non-lawyer even if it won’t become this year’s hot summer beach reading.

Lawyers might be more interested in the both the search feature and the hyperlinks, which both make maneuvering around 2800 pages a good deal easier than a print edition. There’s a master table of contents that contains the major sections, so you could use that TOC to jump to the unannotated version of the Constitution or directly to, say, the annotated 21st Amendment section. Within each section of the annotation, you have a table of contents that will jump you to each section of the annotation on that particular section. This part isn’t perfect, navigation wise. For one thing, if you use the TOC hyperlinks to jump to a particular section, it doesn’t appear you can easily back out. If you try to hit the “back” button, you don’t hop back to the most recent subpart’s TOC – you go all the way back to the beginning. It is at heart a giant PDF, so some things are relatively easy – you can underline, highlight, write handwritten annotations, draw boxes to your heart’s content – and some things are clunky. You can copy a chunk of the text and paste it elsewhere, but it will look awful and not take the corresponding footnotes with it – you’d have to copy/paste that separately.

There’s also a full-text search feature that is speedy if not terribly robust. I did a couple arbitrary searches – Terry v. Ohio and DOMA – just to see what I’d find. Terry turned up any number of references to the case throughout the annotation, which is to be expected. The search had a bit more trouble with DOMA and kept kept returning hits for eminent domain cases, and I can’t see a way to make the rudimentary search not do that.

Regardless of its limitations, it is well worth having on your iPad. It exists for the iPhone but I wouldn’t recommend it, as the print is small already on the iPad. As a legal tool, it may be of limited use, but as a way to use technology to democratize crucial knowledge about America and the law, it is invaluable.


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