The Twilight of the Pardon Power
50 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2010 Last revised: 4 Apr 2011
Date Written: March 12, 2010
For most of our nation’s history, the president’s pardon power has been used with generosity and regularity, to correct systemic injustices and to advance the executive’s policy goals. Since 1980, however, presidential pardoning has fallen on hard times, its benign purposes frustrated by politicians’ fear of making a mistake, and subverted by unfairness in the way pardons are granted. The diminished role of clemency is unfortunate, since federal law makes almost no provision for shortening a prison term and none at all for mitigating the collateral consequences of conviction.
It would be bad enough in these circumstances if presidents had made a conscious choice not to pardon at all, or to make only token use of their constitutional power. But what makes the situation intolerable is that, as the official route to clemency has all but closed, the back-door route has opened wide. In the two administrations that preceded President Obama’s, petitioners with personal or political connections in the White House bypassed the pardon bureaucracy in the Department of Justice, disregarded its regulations, and obtained clemency by means (and sometimes on grounds) not available to the less privileged. Much responsibility for the desuetude and disrepute into which a once-proud and useful institution of government has fallen must be laid at the door of the Justice Department, which during the past two administrations failed in its responsibilities as steward of the power, exposing the president to embarrassment and the power to abuse. To date, President Obama has taken no steps to reform and reinvigorate a pardon process that has, in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s words, been “drained of its moral force.”
Who hijacked the president’s pardon power? Is it worth rescuing, or should it be left to die in peace? To find the answers, this article first looks at pardoning practices in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the pardon power played an important operational role in the federal justice system. It describes how pardon evolved into parole, and after 1930 came to be used primarily to restore rights of citizenship. It then examines the reasons for pardon’s decline in the 1980s and its collapse in the Clinton Administration. Finally, it argues that President Obama should want to revive the power, and suggests how he might do it.
Keywords: Pardon, Clemency, Commutation, Sentencing, Collateral Consequences, president, Clinton, Bush, Obama
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