Fear of Forgiving: Rule and Discretion in the Practice of Pardoning

Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 13, Nos. 3-4, 2000-2001

Pardon Power and Sentencing Policy, Forthcoming

9 Pages Posted: 10 Sep 2001 Last revised: 20 Mar 2016


This paper, by the former Justice Department Pardon Attorney, discusses the role that executive clemency plays in the modern criminal justice system. It explores the tension between rule-based justice and discretionary mercy, suggesting ways of accommodating these two great principles of decision in a determinate sentencing system. It traces the evolution of the pardon function in the federal justice system, and explains the atrophy of pardon in recent years. It attributes the break-down of the pardon process at the end of the Clinton Administration as much to its capture by prosecutors and bureaucrats within the Justice Department, as to the lack of discipline and judgment shown by the departing President Clinton.

This paper analyzes the other symposium essays in terms of the relative importance they ascribe to regularity and discretion in the theory and practice of pardoning. Finally, it proposes that reliance on a rule-based administrative system maximizes the President's ability to use his constitutional power as the Framers intended. The good news about the final Clinton pardons is that they have drawn attention to problems in the justice system that have been simmering for years. The evident need to rethink how pardons should be used and administered provides an early opportunity to consider these problems. Recognizing the limits of pardons should encourage law reform efforts, and recognizing the limits of the law should identify a place for pardons.

Suggested Citation

Colgate Love, Margaret, Fear of Forgiving: Rule and Discretion in the Practice of Pardoning. Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 13, Nos. 3-4, 2000-2001. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=281109 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.281109

Margaret Colgate Love (Contact Author)

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