Discretion Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Discretion, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Discretion?

n. A judge, public official, or private party’s power to form a decision within general legal guidelines that is based upon his/her opinion. For example: a) a judge has the discretion regarding the amount of a fine or whether to grant a trial’s continuance; b) An estate’s trustee or executor may have discretion to divide assets into approximate equal shares to beneficiaries; c) District Attorneys have the discretion to charge a crime as a felony or a misdemeanor; d) Governors have the discretion to grant a pardon; e) a planning commission has discretion to grant or not to grant a zoning ordinance variance.

History and Meaning of Discretion

Discretion is a legal term that has been in use for centuries. It refers to the power or authority granted to a judge, public official or private party to make decisions based on their own judgment within the framework of the law. This means that they have the freedom to choose an alternative course of action, even if it is not legally mandated.

The term "discretion" has its roots in the Latin word "discretio," which means to discern or differentiate. In law, discretion allows individuals to differentiate between different options and choose the one that they believe is best suited to the situation at hand. Discretion is often used as a means of flexibility in the legal system, allowing officials to use their experience and expertise to handle different situations in the way they believe is best.

Examples of Discretion

  1. A judge has discretion regarding the amount of penalty or whether to grant a trial's continuance.
  2. A police officer has the discretion to issue a warning instead of a ticket for a minor traffic violation.
  3. A prosecutor has discretion to charge a crime as a felony or misdemeanor accord to the severity of the crime.
  4. A planning commission has discretion to approve or deny a zoning ordinance variance.

Legal Terms Similar to Discretion

  • Prerogative: A legal right or privilege that allows an individual to act as they see fit.
  • Latitude: A degree of flexibility or freedom granted to an individual within a legal framework.
  • Autonomy: The right or ability to act independently according to one's own judgment.