Professor Mila Versteeg Wins UVA Law's McFarland Prize for Scholarship

Professor Mila Versteeg is a pioneer in comparing the data behind the world's constitutions.

May 26, 2016

University of Virginia School of Law Professor Mila Versteeg, who is among a small group of scholars to be the first to employ empirical methods in comparing the world's constitutions, has been awarded the Law School's Carl McFarland Prize.

The award is given in the spring to a junior faculty member for outstanding research. Versteeg, an expert in constitutional study whose research also extends to other aspects of international law, joined Virginia in 2011. She also directs the Human Rights Program.

"Mila can fairly be called a founder of the field of empirical comparative constitutional law," UVA Law Dean Paul Mahoney said. "Her energy and creativity have drawn new insights and opened new avenues for constitutional scholarship. In her brief time in the academy, she has gained substantial visibility and influence."

Versteeg is already author or editor of several dozen published works. Her recent insights include the discovery that the U.S. Constitution is declining in influence worldwide, and that constitutional prohibitions of torture aren't always effective as deterrents. Two articles she recently co-authored with Adam Chilton of the University of Chicago Law School will be included in their forthcoming book "Just Words? The Effectiveness of Constitutional Rights," to be published by Oxford University Press. The book will include case studies from their travels to complement the book's empirical insights.

Just before joining the Law School, Versteeg earned her doctorate in socio-legal studies from Oxford University, where, for her Ph.D. dissertation, she read and coded information from all of the world's constitutions written since World War II. The data has served as the underpinning of much of her subsequent work.

"Since then I've been trying to map global trends," she said.

Versteeg earned her LL.M. from Harvard Law School, and her bachelor's in public administration and first law degree from Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Prior to joining the Law School, Versteeg was an Olin Fellow and lecturer in law at the University of Chicago Law School. She previously worked at the U.N. Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute in Turin and at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre in Johannesburg.

She said being a student and professional in international settings stoked her interest in making refined legal comparisons among nations.

"I've lived in and studied law in a number of different countries, so comparison comes very naturally," she said. "But I guess I was somewhat frustrated with some of the traditional comparative law scholarship that would always look at a limited set of countries, and usually from a more American perspective."

Versteeg said she is flattered to be recognized for her early-career contributions.

"I am extremely honored," Versteeg said. "It's really great to be singled out for my work, especially at a place like UVA that has a long tradition of valuing scholarship."

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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