Title

The Privatization of Public Legal Rights: How Manufacturers Construct the Meaning of Consumer Law

Abstract

This article demonstrates how the content and meaning of California’s consumer protection laws were shaped by automobile manufacturers, the very group these laws were designed to regulate. My analysis draws on and links two literatures that examine the relationship between law and organizations but often overlook one another: political science studies of how businesses influence public legal institutions, and neo-institutional sociology studies of how organizations shape law within their organizational field. By integrating these literatures, I develop an “institutional-political” theory that demonstrates how organizations’ construction of law and compliance within an organizational field shapes the meaning of law among legislators and judges. This study examines case law and more than 35 years of California legislative history concerning its consumer warranty laws. Using institutional and political analysis, I show how auto manufacturers, who were initially subject to powerful consumer protection laws, weakened the impact of these laws by creating dispute resolution venues. The legislature and courts subsequently incorporated private dispute resolution venues into statutes and court decisions and made consumer rights and remedies largely contingent on consumers first using manufacturer-sponsored venues. Organizational venue creation resulted in public legal rights being redefined and controlled by private organizations.

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