The Pardon Paradox: Lessons of Clinton's Last Pardons
35 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2010 Last revised: 4 Apr 2011
Date Written: September 10, 2002
This article discusses the run-up to the final Clinton pardons, the break-down of the Justice Department administrative process, and the last-minute scramble at the White House that produced a hodge-podge of irregular and controversial grants. The article focuses not so much on the merits of particular grants as on the process that produced them. Comparing two of the final grants that ostensibly came to Clinton’s attention by very different routes, it shows that there are certain pardoning ground rules that any president ignores at his peril. Thus, the universally negative reaction to the final Clinton pardons can be explained in terms of a paradox: the constitutional power to pardon is not subject to regulation or claim of entitlement, but as a practical matter it cannot be exercised except pursuant to a process that is perceived as accessible and fair. If the breakdown of a trustworthy pardon process during the Clinton Administration made poor decisions more likely, it virtually guaranteed that the public would be prepared to believe the worst about them. The article discusses in detail two of Clinton’s final commutation grants, both to individuals sentenced in the same district by the same judge, to illustrate the importance of appearances in pardoning: one grant (Kim Willis) appeared to be the product of an established and accessible administrative routine; the other (Carlos Vignali) appeared to be the product of influence-peddling. The way each case came to the President’s attention made all the difference in how his decisions were received at the time, and how they have later come to be judged.
Keywords: pardon, collateral consequences, conviction, president, Clinton,
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