Ye Zhang: Multi-dimensional Legitimacy — Popular Perceptions of the Judicial System in an Era of Inequality

Multi-dimensional Legitimacy: Popular Perceptions of the Judicial System in an Era of Inequality

Ye Zhang

This project explores how the distributive role of the judicial system is understood by those who take part in and are affected by the legal process. During the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, the U.S. judicial system played a significant role in curbing labor demands for economic redistribution, especially by dampening labor’s ability to strike. Despite labor leaders’ repeated effort to delegitimize the judicial process, they were more successful in mobilizing workers for acts of civil disobedience (actively disobeying court orders), but much less successful in undermining the institutional legitimacy of the judicial system. Often, rational self-interest, including perceptions of judicial unfairness based on self-interest, could not weaken the judicial system’s well-established institutional legitimacy. On the other hand, personal experiences with labor litigation and socialization within working communities frequently had more fundamental effects. Significant differences between community cultures accounted for different mechanisms by which judicial legitimacy came to be established and challenged. These findings emphasize the intricateness of the interactions between economic interest, fairness and institutional legitimacy.

Ye Zhang (who goes by Helen) recently finished her first year as a PhD student in Harvard’s Government department. She previously received her JD from Harvard Law School, where she was an active member of a wide range of student public interest organizations and worked on development and human rights projects from around the world. She has received several fellowships for public service and legal research, and traveled to work with NGOs in China and South Africa. She was also an editor of Harvard International Law Journal, and read submissions for Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. Her present research explores the intersection of political attitude formation, long-term institutional change and social inequality.


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