A full pardon officially removes all records of punishment and guilt, thereby restoring constitutional rights to formerly convicted felons. Presidents can act on any federal crimes, while lower-level offenses may be granted clemency at the state level, usually by governors. (USBlawg.com) The power has been used to help heal the nation. Other times it has been used for purely personal or political reasons.
According to Northern Public Radio, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich stated, "President Obama takes his constitutional power to grant clemency very seriously, and each recommendation received from the Department of Justice is carefully reviewed and evaluated on the merits." (Northernpublicradio.org)
Apparently most recommendations haven't measured up to Obama's standards. P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist at Rock Valley College, reports the rate of pardons granted by the past five presidents (Northernpublicradio.org):
- Ronald Reagan: 1 in 8
- George H.W. Bush 1 in 19
- Bill Clinton: 1 in 16
- George W. Bush: 1 in 55
- Barack Obama: 1 in 290
Why do our two most recent presidents appear so stingy? In part, the number of recommendations continues to grow. Also, many pardons are made at the end of a presidency, so we'll have to recheck Obama's rate at the end of his term in office. If you'd like to request clemency from the president, follow this link to the Department of Justice.
The king of last minute pardons was Bill Clinton. On his last day in office, he served up 140 pardons (USBlawg.com), some of which were highly controversial.
Of the presidential pardons, here are a few of the biggest turkeys, based on the level of public acceptance:
Like Andrew Johnson's pardon of all who had served on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War, President Jimmy Carter wanted to help the nation mend. However, his pardon of those who had evaded the military draft during the Vietnam War was not as well received (About.com).
In another bid in the name of healing the nation, a highly controversial pardon was granted to former president Richard Nixon for anything he might have done or might be accused of having done during the years of the Watergate scandal (About.com).
Nixon issued questionable pardons of his own. He pardoned Jimmy Hoffa who had been convicted of jury tampering and fraud. Hoffa supported Nixon's re-election bid in 1972 and then disappeared in 1975 (Time.com).
Ronald Reagan also had a couple doozies. One went to George Steinbrenner, former Yankees owner who had plead guilty to obstructing justice and making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon. Another went to Junior Johnson, an early NASCAR superstar, who had served a federal sentence for running moonshine (CNN.com).
President George H.W. Bush received criticism by some in 1992 when he pardoned former Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger and five other Reagan administration officials for their roles in the Iran-Contra Affair (About.com).
Bill Clinton's last-day pardons included one for his half-brother, Roger Clinton, who had been found guilty of cocaine distribution. Another was given to financier and tax-evader Marc Rich. This was noteworthy since Rich's ex-wife had donated to Clinton's presidential campaign and library (Discovery.com).
No wonder many pardons aren't made until the president is heading out of public office. Yet, no matter how much criticism a pardon receives, it will stand. A president's power to pardon goes unchecked by any other branch of government.
"It's conceivable that the Founding Fathers were not worried about giving one individual such absolute authority, as the U.S. Constitution as originally written specified only treason, piracy and counterfeiting as federal crimes. After more than 200 years of growth in the government, approximately 4,500 criminal offenses are under the jurisdiction of the federal government" (Investopdedia.com).
There have been many thousands of presidential pardons handed down, some for the good of the country and a sense of justice, some, it would appear, for the good of the pardoner and his partners. Since it is a U.S. holiday, maybe we should just grin at Obama's pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey.
Clark, Josh, "How Presidential Pardons Work," Howstuffworks.com, (accessed 11-20-2012).
Discovery Channel, "Which Presidential Pardons have been Controversial?" Discovery.com, (accessed 11-21-2012).
Fox, Eric, "Notorious Presidential Pardons," Investopedia.com, 9-24-2012.
Gill, Kathy, "Controversial Presidential Pardons," About.com, 1-3-2009.
Institute of Government Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, "Presidential Pardons," NYTimes.com, (accessed 11-21-2012).
JRO, "Controversies in Pardons and Commutations of Sentences," USBlawg.com, 8-6-2012.
Shapiro, Ari, "Tough Turkey: People Have a Harder Time Getting Pardons Under Obama," Northernpublicradio.org, 11-20-2012.
Time Magazine, "Notorious Presidential Pardons," Time.com, (accessed 11-21-2012).
Trex, Thand, "11 Notable Presidential Pardons," CNN.com, 1-5-2009.