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Zahra Aboutalebi
S.J.D. Candidate

zaboutalebi at


From Constitutional Failure toward Constitutional Success: A Critical Study of the Historical Evolution of Constitutional Failures in the United States and Germany

Between 1920 and 1975 alone, more than 500 written constitutions were adopted and abandoned just by former British colonies.  More disturbing is that between 1945 and 2004, 249 coups had taken place with a majority of them choosing to rule without popular consent. In other words, we can see a huge number of constitutions that are disregarded in practice, sham constitutions, and nominal constitutions.  In all these instances, the text of the constitutions has failed to limit the recourse of political actors to extra legal measures. I call this phenomenon Constitutional Failure; and this thesis explores why constitutions fail to limit political power and how. By providing a comprehensible theoretical framework to better conceptualize different instances of failures, I hope to explain what elements in the relation between the written constitution and the interaction of different socio-political forces changed that turned the previous constitutional failures into success in the cases of United States before and after civil war, and in Germany between Weimar Republic and the successful adoption of the German’s Basic Law. Furthermore, this thesis examines the implication of its findings for constitutional design.

Fields of Research and Supervisors

  • U.S. Constitutional Theory and History with Professor Mark Tushnet, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law, Harvard University, Principal Faculty Supervisor.
  • Political Regimes and Regime Change/Failure with Professor Pasquale Pasquino, NYU Global Distinguished Professor of Politics.
  • Comparative Constitutional Law: Constitutional Design, Constitution Making, and Constitutional Change with Professor Vicki Jackson, Thurgood Marshall Professor of Constitutional law, Harvard University.

Additional Research Interests

  • Constitutional Design
  • Jurisprudence
  • Law and Language
  • Bioethics and Islamic Law


  • Harvard Law School, S.J.D. Candidate 2014 – Present
  • Harvard Law School, LL.M. Program 2013- 2014 (requirements fulfilled, degree waived)
  • London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), LL.M. in Constitutional Theory and Jurisprudence, 2011- 2012
  • Shahid Beheshti University, Iran, LL.B. 2006 – 2010

Academic Appointments and Fellowships

  • Harvard Law School, Graduate Program Fellow, 2015–Present
  • Harvard Law School, Summer Academic Fellow, 2015

Representative Publications

  • All my parents: On the Theoretical Basis of Parenthood, 10 Quarterly Journal of the Iranian Scientific Association for Medical Law 81 (2009).
  • A critique on: Why Toleration? 27 Ayeen Journal of Political and Social Affair (2010).

Additional Information

Languages: English (fluent), French (proficient), Persian (native)