Because they are dependent and vulnerable, young people have long been the recipients of governmental policies and legal measures aimed at promoting their welfare and protecting them in circumstances of perceived need. Through its parens patriae power, the state routinely maintains a paternalistic posture in its interactions with minors in hopes of assisting their development into mature and responsible adulthood. In similar fashion, governmentally employed educators are often loosely deemed to act in loco parentis and thus are sometimes thought to assume a quasi-parental relationship with their students. Juveniles are thus the recipients of unique legal attention in a variety of ways. Such attention has, of course, generated a host of judicial controversies.

A particularly troublesome issue concerns the extent to which enacted rules thought to be addressed specifically to young people are unconstitutionally vague. Such rules appear in two separate and distinct contexts: (1) enactments defining status offense jurisdiction of juvenile courts, and (2) measures intended to maintain discipline in schools.

In this Article, I clarify the vagueness problems in the contexts of status offense jurisdiction and school discipline by appealing to the distinction between “conduct rules,” which are addressed to the general public, and “decision rules,” which are addressed to official decisionmakers. This distinction, as others have argued recently in other contexts, illuminates these particular vagueness problems in the law. Much of the controversy and confusion in the case law results from courts assuming that status offense statutes and school disciplinary rules operate as conduct rules aimed at notifying young people—potential status offenders and students, respectively—of conduct to be avoided, when, in fact, the rules constitute decision rules aimed at guiding the exercise of discretion of juvenile court functionaries and educational officials. Appreciation of the conduct rule/decision rule distinction will provide the courts with a vital analytical tool in deciding future vagueness claims, as well as afford policymakers guidance in fashioning status offense legislation and school discipline rules. Part II of the Article discusses the conduct rule/decision rule distinction and its relevance to vagueness problems. Part III discusses relevant status offense cases raising the vagueness issue, rethinks them in terms of the distinction, and offers an assessment of when decision rules alone are constitutionally permissible. Part IV offers a similar case analysis relating the conduct rule/decision rule distinction to the context of vagueness attacks on student disciplinary rules.