Legal Theory Essay

H.L.A. Hart’s Lost Essay: Discretion and the Legal Process School

Vol. 127 No. 2 This Essay analyzes an essay by H. L. A. Hart about discretion that has never before been published, and has often been considered lost. Hart, one of the most significant legal philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote the essay at Harvard Law School in November 1956, shortly after he arrived as a visiting professor. In the essay, Hart argued that discretion is a special mode of reasoned, constrained decisionmaking that occupies a middle ground between arbitrary choice and determinate rule application. Hart believed that discretion, soundly exercised, provides a principled way of coping with legal indeterminacy that is fully consistent with the rule of law. This Essay situates Hart’s paper – Discretion – in historical and intellectual context, interprets its main arguments, and assesses its significance in jurisprudential history.