This timely book is concerned with interactions between ordinary people and large public bureaucracies—interactions that typically are characterized by mutual frustration and antagonism. In fact, as Joel Handler points out, the procedural guidelines intended to ensure fairness and due process fail to take account of an initial imbalance of power and tend to create adversarial rather than cooperative relationships.
When the special education needs of a handicapped child must be determined, parents and school administrators often face an especially painful confrontation. The Conditions of Discretion focuses on one successful approach to educational decision making (developed by the school district of Madison, Wisconsin) in order to illustrate how such interactions can be restructured and enhanced. Madison’s creative plan regards parents as part of the solution, not the problem, and uses “lay advocates” to turn conflict into an opportunity for communication. Arrangements such as these, in Handler’s analysis, exemplify the theoretical conditions under which discretionary decisions can be made fairly and with the informed participation of all concerned.
The Conditions of Discretion offers not only a detailed case study, sympathetically described, but also persuasive assessments of major themes in contemporary legal and social policy—informed consent, bureaucratic change, social movement activity, the relationship of the individual to the state. From these strands, Handler weaves a significant new theory of cooperative decision making that integrates the public and the private, recognizes the importance of values, and preserves autonomy within community.
"A masterful blend of social criticism, social sciences, and humane, constructive thought about the future of the welfare state." —Duncan Kennedy, Harvard Law School
JOEL F. HANDLER is professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles.