Legal Theory Essay 127 Harv. L. Rev. 666

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


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. In the context of Hart’s work, Discretion is notable because it sketches a theory of legal reasoning in depth, with vivid examples. In the context of jurisprudential history, Discretion is significant because it sheds new light on long-overlooked historical and theoretical connections between Hart’s work and the Legal Process School, the American jurisprudential movement dominant at Harvard during Hart’s year as a visiting professor. Hart’s Discretion is part of our jurisprudential heritage, advancing our understanding of legal philosophy and its history.