Alan Tarr, a distinguished professor of political science and the director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers–Camden, has been named the 2013-2014 Ann and Herbert W. Vaughan Visiting Fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Each year, the program brings together preeminent scholars to explore enduring questions of American constitutional law and Western political thought. The program also examines the application of basic legal and ethical principles to contemporary problems.
While at Princeton, Tarr will conduct research for a forthcoming book, The People’s Constitutions, to be published by Oxford University Press. According to Tarr, the book focuses on popular constitutionalism – the notion that citizens should play an active role in how constitutions are interpreted. He explains that such a role is difficult to achieve on the national level, where U.S. Supreme Court justices are not chosen by U.S. citizens. He notes, however, there are opportunities to play such a role on the state level, where constitutions change more frequently, and those who interpret the constitution are selected by the people themselves.
“The question becomes, ‘How does that work out in practice?’” asks Tarr, a resident of Princeton. “As people are given a bigger role in terms of interpreting their state constitutions, are there positive or negative developments?”
Tarr adds that it’s important for people to understand state constitutions because various constitutional elements affect their lives on a daily basis – even if they aren’t aware of it. He explains that citizens come into direct contact with state government far more than with the federal government. “It affects everything from police to zoning to education to domestic relations,” explains Tarr. “It is the state constitution that structures the state government and determines how it interacts with us.”
Secondly, he notes, state constitutions provide an opportunity for ordinary citizens to become involved in fundamental political matters, because they are relatively easy to change. “They are, therefore, responsive to citizen demands, whether dealing with matters of home rule, same-sex marriage, rights of victims of crimes, or a host of other matters,” he says.
A prolific author, Tarr wrote the books Without Fear or Favor: Judicial Independence and Judicial Accountability in the States (Stanford University Press), Understanding State Constitutions (Princeton University Press), and Judicial Process and Judicial Policymaking (Wadsworth). He also co-wrote State Supreme Courts in State and Nation (Yale University Press) and American Constitutional Law (Westview Press).
He serves as editor of State Constitutions of the United States, a 50-volume reference series (Oxford University Press), and co-editor of the three-volume set State Constitutions for the Twenty-first Century (State University of New York Press), Constitutional Dynamics in Federal Systems: Sub-National Perspectives (McGill-Queen’s University Press), Constitutional Origins, Structure, and Change in Federal Countries (McGill-Queen's University Press), and Federalism, Subnational Constitutions, and Minority Rights (Praeger).
Tarr a Fulbright Fellowship, as well as three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has lectured on constitutionalism and federalism throughout the United States and in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. He earned his B.A. in political science from the College of the Holy Cross, and an M.A. and Ph.D., both in political science, from the University of Chicago.