judicial discretion

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Judicial discretion refers to a judge's power to make a decision based on their individualized evaluation, guided by the principles of law. Judicial discretion gives courts immense power which is exercised when legislature allows for it. For example, Ohio's rules of civil procedure Rule 59 allow courts to grant a new trial based on its "sound discretion." In Criminal Law, certain penal code provisions (such as California's penal code 17(c)) sometimes grant courts the discretion to pick between a choice of punishments for certain crimes. Judicial discretion is granted to the courts out of recognition of each cases individuality, and as such, decisions should be based on the case's particular circumstances rather than a rigid application of law.

Decisions made under this power have to be sound and not arbitrary, meaning that such decisions have to be made based on what is right and equitable under the circumstances. Indeed, an abuse of discretion can be appealed. California has held that an abuse of discretion will be found where the trial court "exceeded the bounds of reason" and made its decision in an "arbitrary…manner that resulted in a manifest miscarriage of justice." The second circuit has further articulated that a court abuses its direction where a court: (1) bases its discretion on an error of law or uses the wrong legal standard; (2) bases its decision on a clearly erroneous factual finding; or (3) reaches a conclusion that is outside the permissible range of conclusions. For example, in a case where a trial court has the discretion to issue  a misdemeanor or felony sentence, and chooses to issue the former solely out of disapproval for the punishment that would follow the latter, it has abused its discretion by making its decision using the wrong considerations.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]