President Bush's Pardons

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HNN EditorThis article was first published in January 2005. On July 2, 2007 President Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby.

Traditionally, over the holiday season each year, the president approves of various actions of clemency. George W. Bush recently approved of pardons to four individuals convicted of embezzlement, misapplication of bank funds, possession of counterfeit obligations, and theft. Over the course of his first term, Bush has issued a mere 31 pardons and sentence commutations. This is less than any modern president. In fact, you have to go back to Zachary Taylor, twelfth president of the United States, to find a similar number of clemencies; Taylor made 38.

The president’s power to grant pardons was clearly enshrined in the United States Constitution, Article II, Section 2: “The President…shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.”

While the Framers of the Constitution debated clemency, it was not viewed as a controversial idea. There was some debate over making presidential pardons subject to the consent of the Senate, though this was quickly rejected. Additionally, there was some discussion of making pardons only available to individuals convicted of a crime, but this too was rejected. However, they did all agree that pardons should not apply in cases of impeachment. This was likely prompted by a constitutional crisis in seventeenth century England which was created after King Charles II issued a pardon to Thomas Osborne, the Earl of Danby, whom Parliament had impeached.

As the Founding Fathers were hammering out the details of the Constitution in Philadelphia, they seem to have tacitly agreed that the privilege to exercise mercy, on which the power to issue pardons is founded, was most pragmatically wielded by a single person, rather than a legislative body or even judges. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Number 74, wrote that:

Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed…As the sense of responsibility is always strongest in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives, which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations, which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance…On the other hand, as men generally derive confidence from their numbers, they might often encourage each other in an act of obduracy and might be less sensible to the apprehension of suspicion or censure for an injudicious or affected clemency. On these accounts, one man appears to be a more eligible dispenser of the mercy of the government than a body of men.

Over the years, presidents have issued pardons or commutations to a motley band of crooks, criminals, and scoundrels. Washington gave amnesty to the instigators of the Whiskey Rebellion, while Johnson did the same for Confederate rebels. Harding pardoned fiery Socialist labor leader and convicted felon Eugene V. Debs. Nixon issued a commutation to organized crime figure Jimmy Hoffa, only to be pardoned himself by Gerald Ford following the Watergate fiasco. Carter gave amnesty to the Vietnam draft resisters, and commuted the sentence of armed robber Patty Hearst. Reagan issued a pardon to George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees for illegal campaign contributions he made in the 1960s. George Bush, Sr. pardoned Iran contra scandal figure Caspar Weinberger. Clinton infamously pardoned fugitive financier Mark Rich, whose wife had been a major contributor to the Democratic National Committee.

George W. Bush is now notable for issuing so few actions of clemency. In comparison to his 31, Clinton averaged 228 during each of his administrations. George’s father issued 77 during his term. Reagan averaged 203 during each of his administrations. Carter issued 566 pardons or commutations, while Ford issued 409.

During his term as governor of Texas, he issued fewer pardons than any other governor in Texas since the 1940s. George W. issued only 16, compared to 70 for Ann Richards, his immediate predecessor. When questioned about his low number of pardons in an interview with Austin’s Star-Telegram newspaper, then Governor Bush suggested that it had less to do with any particular political philosophy, and more to do with his experience with one pardon he issued. He pardoned an individual in 1995 for a marijuana conviction, and only a few months later the individual was arrested for cocaine possession.

Today, it’s hard to think of President Bush apart from his political philosophy of “Compassionate Conservatism.” After all, he’s gone out of his way to promote the idea. And while it’s difficult to quantify compassion, issuing a paltry 31 clemencies doesn’t seem very compassionate. But it sure is conservative. In more ways than one.

Related Links

  • HNN Hot Topics: Libby Case
  • CNN: Presidents and the power to pardon

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