The past half−century has seen a surge in consumer protection laws designed to give consumers power versus businesses. This dissertation shows how business organizations, namely, automobile manufacturers, shape the content and meaning of consumer protection laws designed to regulate them in ways that transform and at times weaken the rights of consumers. Through qualitative and quantitative analyses, I analyze the process through which public legal rights are essentially privatized as manufacturers influence the form and content of consumer warranty legislation (&Idquo;lemon laws”), the nature of administrative regulation, and most importantly, the way in which consumer complaints are adjudicated. This study compares an instance where powerful state consumer protection laws are resolved in third−party dispute resolution forums created by business organizations and approved by the state (California) with one in which consumer disputes are resolved in public alternative dispute resolution processes run and administered by the state (Vermont). After explaining how two states channeled public legal rights into different institutional structures, I show that the form of the organizational dispute resolution structure influences the meaning of lemon laws in different ways based on competing business and consumer logics operating among public and private actors that adjudicate consumer disputes. Thus, the form of the dispute resolution structure, and how public and private actors construct what lemon laws mean in these structures, has critical implications for the effectiveness of consumer protection laws for consumers.
This research has important implications for theory, method, and policy. Theoretically, my study draws upon and elaborates new institutional work in organizational sociology (Edelman 1990, 1992; Edelman, Uggen, & Erlanger 1999; Dobbin et al. 1993; Sutton et al. 1994) and analyses of business influence over legislation and regulation by political scientists (Baumgartner & Jones 1993; Ayres & Braithwaite 1991; Stigler 1971; Bernstein 1955) by offering an institutional−political theory of how private organizations shape the content and meaning of public legal rights. It also contributes to law and society scholarship on dispute resolution in organizations (Galanter & Lande 1992; Edelman & Suchman 1999), studies of the law in action (Macaulay 1963), and access to justice (Felstinger, Abel & Sarat 1980−81). In addition to using a wide range of methods (archival analysis, interviewing, participant observation, content analysis, and statistics), I specifically use qualitative methods to examine how law is constructed by an &Idquo;organizational field,” in this case the field of automobile manufacturers, an arena that has previously been studied primarily through quantitative analyses. Whereas quantitative analyses illustrate the macro−dynamics of organizational fields and the diffusion of legal innovations, qualitative methods allow me to identify the micro−processes and mechanisms through which organizations construct the meaning of law. From a policy perspective, my work has critical implications for the growing body of legal scholarship on delegated governance. Whereas much of this scholarship advocates deregulation, public−private partnerships, and organizational self−governance in the context of delivery of services and benefits in society, my analysis sounds a note of caution. At least in the context of adjudicating public legal rights, I show the privatization of dispute resolution by business organizations has potential to undermine the rights of social have−nots.