Student Curiosity Drives the Making of a Law Review Article

Scholarship Collaboration Looks at Democratic Despots
Mila Versteeg

Professor Mila Versteeg teaches Comparative Constitutional Law, International Human Rights Law and related courses at the Law School.

April 29, 2019

Professor Mila Versteeg was teaching Comparative Constitutional Law last spring at the University of Virginia School of Law when a topic of interest to many in the class came up: presidents around the world who don’t want to leave office.

The students had each been assigned a country to be constitutional “experts” on. Tim Horley was a third-year law student covering China — a timely choice. In March of last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, oversaw the party-controlled congress’ removal of term limits for the president and vice president

Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe were also elected leaders who stayed past their mandate. Was this a trend?

The students’ intellectual curiosity drove the making of what would ultimately become a law review article.

“It went from a class paper to something we could work on over the summer,” Horley said. “After graduation, we circled back up and talked about how we wanted to approach it.”

The Collaboration

Versteeg teamed up with UVA political science professor Anne Meng, whose research focuses on authoritarianism and democratic erosion, to establish the parameters for the research and design the project. It would be a comparative constitutional analysis of countries where a president has evaded or attempted to evade exiting office since 2000. Meng was already working on a book project that related.

The student collaborators — Horley and Marilyn Guirguis, a fellow third-year, and S.J.D. student Mauricio Guim, now a law professor in Mexico — culled information on Sub-Saharan Africa, Eurasia and Latin America, respectively.

They would ultimately trace the evasion strategies of 234 incumbents in 106 countries. The resulting paper, “The Law and Politics of Presidential Term Limit Evasion,” is available on SSRN.

“The research looked into every country with a presidential system,” said Versteeg, who is the Class of 1941 Research Professor of Law at UVA and an Andrew Carnegie Fellow with the Carnegie Foundation of New York. “They covered each with a detailed memo, and we later quantified the information from these memos, creating a unique and valuable database that formed the basis for the paper,” she said.

The students worked on the paper as Guim was transitioning to his new job, and Guirguis and Horley were studying for the bar exam.

"Mila created a classroom setting that allowed us to explore issues that interest us, encouraged collaboration among students and provided great support in delving deeper into the research,” Guirguis said. “That sort of leadership and support extended throughout the summer, making it easier than it otherwise could have been to multitask studying for the bar exam and contribute to the article."

What They Found

Evasion attempts, the team learned, are very common — especially in weaker democracies. Globally, a third of incumbents pursued some attempt to stay in office.

“If we exclude the world’s strongest democracies, we find that about half of the leaders that reached the end of their term attempted to overstay,” according to the paper.

The team also learned that the term-limit evasion strategies had something in common — an attempt to create a veneer of legitimacy. Most incumbents tried either to creatively interpret their constitutions, often with backing from the courts, or to have their constitutions amended, the latter of which occurred in about two-thirds of the cases.

Other strategies included “finding a faithful-agent replacement leader whom the incumbent can control after he is out of office” and citing some form of instability to avoid leaving.

“Some of the attempts are kind of ingenious, and some are just brazen,” Horley said of the schemes.

The Writing

Horley did the bulk of the writing with Versteeg, earning him second credit for the authorship.

He had previously published an essay on the First Amendment for the Virginia Law Review online, but this new paper was something entirely different. The research and its empirical analysis were much more intensive this time.

He and Versteeg spent the end of the summer writing. Horley soon learned that what may be good enough for a classroom paper or online article doesn’t quite cut it for a law review article.

“Mila was very direct,” he said. That directness helped him improve his writing more quickly, and he appreciated it, he added.

Focusing on the bigger-picture issues that needed to be addressed in the first draft, rather than getting bogged down by minor concerns, helped them finish before the fall submission cycle for journals ended.

“There’s a learning process,” Versteeg said. “But we have very smart and dedicated law students. With some guidance, collaborations are very mutually beneficial.”

Submission

With clear writing, substantive research and strong conclusions, the team felt confident their work was ready for submission.

They decided to target law reviews, which are student-run but make up the majority of scholarly law journals, rather than peer journals, whose processes often mean a longer period between acceptance and publication. They sent out their paper in early September — the end of the summer cycle — and waited.

Some of the journals declined, while many didn’t reply at all. Ultimately, there were no takers.

“You always send to 40 or 50 law reviews at one time,” Versteeg said. “We didn’t get a single offer at all. Some weren’t really looking anymore at that point.”

“It was disheartening,” Horley added.

But they knew they had a winning paper. They refined their work and focused on the next submission cycle, which was in February and March.

Finally, their persistence paid off. The Columbia Law Review wanted the paper. The journal contacted Versteeg — and told her she had one hour to decide.

The team was spread out. Horley was at a law firm in New York, Guim was in Mexico, Guirguis was clerking for a federal district judge in West Virginia, and Meng was here, teaching.

Versteeg, who was out of the country herself, accepted the offer on the group’s behalf.

She said it was notable that the Harvard Law Review also contacted the team. Its Articles Committee was going to vote on the paper, but the decision had been made to publish with the Columbia Law Review. Such is the uncertain nature of the process.

Team members said they were overjoyed with their placement, and have no regrets. 

Horley is interested in a future career in academia, and having written an important paper positions him that much closer.

“As someone just starting out, to get published by that quality of a journal was a really big deal,” he said.

Versteeg said the students’ passion for the project made all of the difference.

“If the students hadn’t initiated it, this paper would not have happened,” she said.

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