Legal Theory Lexicon: Rules, Standards, Principles, Catalogs, and Discretion

Claud Mccoid


Early on in legislation faculty, legislation learners begin to recognize that lawful norms are not all cut from the exact same fabric. Some rules provide “vivid traces,” many others “fuzzy traces,” and but many others, no traces at all. The “affordable man or woman” exam in tort legislation constrains in a pretty various way than does the rule versus perpetuities in residence. That is, lawful norms vary in extent to which they constrain people who are billed with implementing them.

We can slice and dice lawful norms in a variety of means. In this publish, we will examine the plan that lawful norms can be sorted into 5 common courses: rules, requirements, ideas, catalogs, and discretion. Let’s stipulate to the pursuing descriptions and definitions to get the dialogue off the floor:

Principles are the most constraining and rigid. The moment a rule has been interpreted and the details have been uncovered, then the application of the rule to the details decides the problem to which it is relevant (except the situation falls in just the penumbra of a rule with vague written content).

Benchmarks provide an intermediate level of constraint. Benchmarks information conclusions but provide a better assortment of decision or discretion requirements define a set of required considerations.

Rules are even considerably less constraining. Rules provide required considerations for judges. Whereas, requirements recognize an exhaustive set of considerations for adjudication or policy generating, a principle identifies a member of a nonexhaustive set, leaving open up the possibility that other unspecified considerations could be relevant to the determination.

Catalogs are a hybrid variety of lawful norm.  A catalog consists of a record of things that are in just (or without having) the lawful norm, and then a sweepings clause, e.g., “and other things like this.”  Catalogs have to have judges to make conclusions about what things not on the record are relevantly similar to the things on the record.

Discretion is a closing alternative.  The relevant lawful norm could simply be a secondardy rule that grants discretion to an official (regularly a decide).

This publish provides an introduction to rules, requirements, ideas, catalogs, and discretion for legislation learners (in particular initially-12 months legislation learners) with an desire in lawful principle.


Though the phrase “lawful rule” can be used in a wide perception, to refer to all lawful norms, no matter whether they be forged in the variety of a vivid-line rule, a standard that is in the variety of a balancing exam, or even an summary principle, there is also a narrower perception of “rule” that distinguishes rules from requirements and ideas.

Principles themselves change–let us use really hard and comfortable to refer to the poles of a continuum. A rule is more durable if both of those the circumstances for its application and the effects that abide by are defined by vivid-line distinctions that confess of simple application. The rule that disqualifies folks who are not 35 many years of age from eligibility for the Presidency of the United States is quite really hard or rigid. Principles develop into softer as they criterion for the application and/or the effects to which they lead develop into fuzzier. If the constitution had minimal the presidency to “older people,” then there could have been circumstances in which the dilemma no matter whether a unique candidate was unclear. Twelve-12 months olds are clearly not older people but 20-5 12 months olds clearly are. In involving, the requirement of drawing a rather arbitrary line helps make the “grownup” rule fairly softer than the “35-12 months previous” rule.


Benchmarks are considerably less constraining than even “comfortable” rules. Whereas a rule defines a triggering ailment and a consequence, a standard could define a set of relevant considerations and options. A single common instance of a standard is offered by the fairness ingredient of the International Shoe exam for particular jurisdiction. That exam involves a court docket to obtain that a state’s assertion of particular jurisdiction violates the Because of System Clause on the basis of a give aspect balancing exam, which refers to the defendant’s desire, the plaintiff’s desire, the desire of the discussion board, judicial performance and economic system, and substantive policy worries.

Like rules, requirements themselves change in their capability to information and constrain the determination-generating procedure. Some requirements give the determination maker considerable advice, by specifying fairly certain and concrete factors the determination maker should think about and the relative body weight or value of people factors. Other requirements are much much more open up finished, necessitating thought of factors that are common and summary. Benchmarks that refer to “all the situation,” “the pursuits of justice,” or “equitable considerations” are notably comfortable. Benchmarks that have to have the evaluation of “price to the defendant” or “severe invasions of privacy” are fairly more durable, furnishing better constraint and advice.

By way of illustration, think about eligibility for the presidency as soon as again. A rule centered approach may well restrict eligibility to folks of a selected age or to “older people.” A standard may well specify that the only folks who are “adequately mature” could occupy the office of President. This standard is fairly open up-finished, and it may well disqualify some sixty-12 months olds from the presidency but permit some twenty 12 months olds to serve.


Rules are quite various from both of those rules and requirements–at minimum on the basis of the definitions that we are applying. Both of those rules and requirements provide a framework that is, in principle, adequate for resolving a unique problem in a lawful dispute. But as we are applying the term, a “principle” only provides advice for the interpretation or application of a rule or standard. Rules by themselves do not take care of lawful difficulties.

This perception of principle is illustrated by Ronald Dworkin’s instance of the principle that no one particular should be permitted to income from their very own wrong, drawn from the situation of Riggs v. Palmer, 22 N.E. 188 (N.Y. 1889). In that situation, the statute of wills would have permitted a assassin to inherit from his sufferer, but the New York Court docket of Appeals concluded that the statute should be offered an equitable interpretation in gentle of the popular legislation principle versus wrong doers profiting from their wrongs. This principle is not a rule: the legislation does allow wrong doers to income from their wrongs in a wide variety of situation. Relatively, this common and summary principle offered advice in the interpretation and building of a rule–in Riggs, the rule offered by the statute of wills. (This instance is drawn from Ronald Dworkin’s well known essay Tricky Conditions.)


Catalogs can be witnessed as a compromise involving rules and requirements, with a twist.  A catalog provides a record that function likes a rule, but then invites growth of the record.  For instance, the Equine Activities Act provides that “No equine activity sponsor, equine specialist, health care provider of veterinary medication, or any other man or woman, is liable for an harm to or the death of a participant ensuing from the inherent risks of equine activities.”  Suppose that the act had as a substitute claimed “or similar folks.”  Courts would then have been invited to interact in analogical reasoning to increase the catalog.


Ultimately, many legql requirements give discretion to a determination maker.  For instance, trial judges have discretionary power to decide how many witnesses a social gathering could contact on a unique problem.  This determination will be upheld by an appellate court docket, except it can be revealed that the trial judge’s determination was an “abuse of discretion.”  This standard of appellate evaluation is hugely deferential, but if the trial judge’s determination was improperly enthusiastic (e.g., by spite) or irrational, the determination can be reversed.

The Execs and Downsides of Principles, Benchmarks, and Rules

What are the pros and cons of rules, requirements, and ideas? When you have determined a candidate lawful norm, when should you argue that the norm should be formulated as a rule, a standard, or a principle? In his well known 1985 write-up, Pierre Schlag offered this instance:

In one particular torts casebook, for occasion, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Benjamin Cardozo obtain themselves on opposite sides of a railroad crossing dispute. They disagree about what standard of carry out should define the obligations of a driver who will come to an unguarded railroad crossing. Holmes delivers a rule: The driver should quit and search. Cardozo rejects the rule and as a substitute delivers a standard: The driver should act with affordable caution. Which is the preferable approach? Holmes suggests that the necessities of due treatment at railroad crossings are crystal clear and, hence, it is appropriate to crystallize these obligations into a easy rule of legislation. Cardozo counters with eventualities in which it would be neither sensible nor prudent for a driver to quit and search. Holmes may well nicely have answered that Cardozo’s eventualities are exceptions and that exceptions show the rule. In fact, Holmes may well have parried by suggesting that the definition of a standard of carry out by implies of a lawful rule is predictable and selected, whilst requirements and juries are not. This dispute could go on for quite some time.

Here are some essential thoughts about the appropriateness of rules, requirements, ideas, catalogs, and discretion:

Predictability and certainty. If your intention is ex ante predictability and certainty, then rules are generally the way to go. Predictability and certainty are notably critical when the legislation seeks to information foreseeable future carry out. For instance, if we want to prevent unique sorts of carry out, we could do improved to define the carry out in a rule (or in a set of rules) that would enable people who interact in the carry out to clearly see that the proscribed carry out is forbidden. Benchmarks provide considerably less advice, and ideas, pretty much no advice at all.

Fairness and sensitivity. On the other hand, if our intention is to insure ex publish fairness, then requirements could be the way to go. Benchmarks allow adaptability and the thought of mitigating situation. Rigid rules are very likely to lead to unfairness in unique circumstances, for the reason that it could be complicated to define in progress all of the situation which should count as exceptions to the rule.

Complexity and Incommensurability.  Some conclusions include pretty intricate judgment calls that include the application of numerous and incommensurable factors to unique circumstances that are hugely variegated or even special.  This is a condition where by rules are not likely to operate nicely, and hence requirements or discretion seems appropriate.

The task of ideas. Rules seem very best suited for a different form of lawful process. Rules cut throughout doctrinal fields. The exact same principle–one particular could not advantage from one’s very own wrong, for instance–could apply in torts, contracts, and the legislation of wills. Hence, ideas are notably nicely suited to give lawful variety to worries which function in a broad wide variety of unique contexts.


Authorized theorists need to be in a position to recognize rules, requirements, ideas, catalogs, and discretion.  More importantly, lawful theorists need to be in a position to argue the pros and cons of formulating lawful norms in these standard sorts. The most important intention of this publish has been to enable you to distinguish a rule from a standard and to see that ideas function in a various way than both rules or ideas. I also hope that the publish has offered you with some instruments that will enable you to make arguments like: “this rule would improved be reformulated as a standard, for the reason that . . .” And arguments, like, “that lawful norm seriously isn’t really a standard at all, it is improved explained as a principle.” I’ve offered some supplemental references, for people who want to pursue these thoughts even more.

Linked Lexicon Entries

  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 001: Ex Ante/Ex Publish
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 017: The Rule of Law
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 024: Balancing Checks
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 043: Formalism and Instrumentalism
  • Authorized Principle Lexicon 072: Scalars and Binaries 


  • Larry Alexander, What are Rules, and Do They Exist? (2013).
  • Baird & Weisberg, Principles, Benchmarks, and the Struggle of the Varieties: A Reassessment of § 2-207, sixty eight Virginia Law Review 1217 (1982).
  • Ronald Dworkin, Tricky Conditions in Getting Rights Significantly (1977).
  • Herbert Hart & Albert Sacks, Hart & Sacks’ The Authorized System: Standard Difficulties in the Building and Software of Law (College Casebook Series®) (William N. Eskridge Jr. & Phillip P. Frickey eds. 2001).
  • Louis Kaplow, Principles Vs . Benchmarks: An Economic Analysis, forty two DUKE L. REV. 557 (1992) .
  • Duncan Kennedy, Sort and Compound in Personal Law Adjudication, 89 Harvard Law Review 1685 (1976).
  • Gideon Parchomovsky & Alex Stein, Catalogs, 114 Colum. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2014).
  • Pierre J. Schlag, Principles and Benchmarks, 33 UCLA L. Rev. 379 (1985).

(This entry was final modified on August seven, 2021.)

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