What is a Bright-Line Rule?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A bright-line rule or bright-line test is a clear, simple, and objective standard which can be applied to judge a situation. In a simplistic example of a bright-line rule, if a young person had been told that a cookie jar was off limits and he or she was found with a hand in the cookie jar, he or she would be considered in violation, and punishment would be meted out accordingly. Bright-line rules are used in legal courts around the world to ensure that judgment is meted out fairly and equally; in the opposite of a bright-line rule, a judge uses what is known as a balancing test, balancing all of the factors involved in a case to arrive at a verdict and sentence.

Bright-line rules are used in courts of law to ensure that judgement is fair.
Bright-line rules are used in courts of law to ensure that judgement is fair.

Some members of the legal community support the establishment of bright-line rules, and wish that more bright-line rules could be created, because they remove ambiguity and uncertainty from the legal system. Others, however, feel that a bright-line rule can sometimes be too simplistic, ignoring a complex convergence of people, events, and elements, and as a result people are sometimes unfairly punished for their involvement in a situation.

A classic example of a bright-line rule are voting laws, which dictate who can vote, and when. Most nations have a minimum age requirement for voters, so someone beneath that age who attempted to vote could be accused of fraud. Likewise, certain people such as felons are denied the privilege of voting in some areas of the world. In these instance, the bright-line rule makes the situation cut and dried: either someone is eligible to vote, or not.

There are several ways in which a bright-line rule can be created. In the voting laws example above, the bright-line rule is created through a legal statute. A bright-line rule can also be created through legal precedent such as a court judgment in a challenging case. Judges who feel that they are setting precedents are usually very careful about how they word and present their judgments, ensuring that the judgment can be cited by others later.

In a balancing test, on the other hand, matters are not so black and white. For example, in a case where someone is accused of murder, people may be asked to consider whether the murder involved intent, or not, and proof must be provided to support either conclusion. Depending on the type of murder, the brutality involved, and other factors, the sentence might vary, with some murderers being relatively lightly punished, while others are severely punished for particularly heinous crimes. This would be in contrast with a bright-line rule in which all murderers received the same sentence, regardless of circumstances.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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