Political pardons - why?

In the thread about Tom DeLay’s appeal, somebody suggested that a GOP judge would push out DeLay’s appeal until the end of Rick Perry’s term to make sure he was eligible for a pardon.

I think that’s a bit silly, but this is not supposed to be a partisan debate. What I want to know is why US governors and presidents have pardon powers. The whole process seems a bit sordid and old-boy-ish (Ford/Nixon, Bush II/Libby, Bush I/Iran Contra people, Clinton/just about everyone).

At the very least, it seems as though presidents/governors should automatically be barred from pardoning people they know.

Or does it?

Historically, the right to pardon was a privilege of the Crown. It served the purpose of addressing cases where for procedural or other reasons, courts could not engage a legitimate claim of injustice. No doubt, it also served the political purposes of kings as well. It is implicit in the nature of things, since courts order punishments but do not have the power to enforce them - that power falls to the executive (which is to say, the king), who might decide not to.

Again historically, pardons did not expunge the conviction, which was an act of the courts, just the obligation to suffer the consequences of the conviction.

In many places where royal pardons are still used, they serve as a final redress, so that if a person has exhausted all his rights of appeal, but fresh evidence emerges which warrants reconsideration of the case, the pardon process can be engaged. The details of how this works in practice varies.

The US inherited the idea of executive clemency; in the US, however, it seems to have become corrupted so that it has become a favour that political mates can call in.

Who handles pardons in Canada on behalf of the Crown? The PM? Governor-General?

I think Ford pardoning Nixon is an example of how the process is supposed to work applied to political situations.

Ford pardoned Nixon in order to bring “our long national nightmare” to an end. Ford felt that the drawbacks of a criminal prosecution, on top of the Watergate hearings and the eventual resignation of Nixon, outweighed the advantages. Clemency, in that case, was better for everyone, in his opinion. The President was given the power of clemency/pardon for situations like this.

Obviously it can be abused, but it can also act as a further one of the checks and balances between the various branches of the federal government.


The Governor General in theory, although, on a routine basis, the Parole Board. Assuming you don’t reoffend, you’re pretty much guaranteed a pardon 5, 10, or 15 years after you’ve served your sentence.

I will say that even though that occurs, the vast majority of pardons in the US aren’t political, but are routine, apolitical things.

I think in most countries with parliamentary governments, I believe the head of state is responsible for pardons, and not the head of government. For instance, in Israel the President does it rather than the Prime Minister.

Traditionally, the idea of the pardon is to grant clemency in a case where a strict reading of the law did not really serve the interests of justice. A witness may recant after a conviction, new evidence may come forth, strange circumstances may obtain, so on so forth. Sometimes the court system can correct itself, sometimes not. A pardon provides the opportunity for a common-sense check on the court system, and a lot of experts (including Anthony Kennedy) say it is much *under-*used w/r/t ordinary criminals.

Legally speaking, I think it’s probably a fools errand to try to distinguish politically-motivated pardons from pardons in general.

Clinton took a lot of heat for pardoning Marc Rich. Rich was not a democratic politician, nor he was not a close associate of Clinton, yet I don’t think any honest observer can seriously claim his pardon was done in the interests of justice. Now consider a retarded teenage black kid given the death penalty by an all-white jury based on shaky evidence; and the black kid’s father is a precinct captain for the governor’s party.

You’d have a whale of a time trying to craft a law that prevents a pardon in the first case, but allows it in the second.

I’m kind of curious who actually gets pardons. We hear about a lot about the controversial ones that seem to be politically motivated, but almost all actual Presidential pardons are for pretty minor offenses where the perpatrator has already served their jail time, and its hard to imagine anyone bothering risking a corruption charge over. People like Libby or Rich are outliers.

Here’s a list of people pardoned by Obama. Almost all of them already served their sentences, and most of the charges are pretty minor. Bush II list is pretty similar

True, but I think it would be a useful rule to prohibit presidential pardons in cases in which the crime was committed in the course of working for that very president (or an immediately preceding president of the same party).

In my experience, the controversial ones are almost always given at the end of the term, so looking at Obama’s list isn’t very informative. Bush’s would be, though.

Yea, but my point is that most of the pardons aren’t of the last minute, controversial variety. Clinton’s well known, last minute pardons were of ten people, but he pardoned 456 people over his Presidency. So even for a President known for questionable pardons, the vast bulk of his use of the power doesn’t seem to elict much notice.

So my question was, how were the other 446 people chosen? Or how did Obama decide to pardon “James Bernard Banks, of Liberty, Utah, sentenced to two years of probation in 1972 for illegal possession of government property.” whose total sentence was two years probation that he completed back in the early 70’s.

You send a request to the Pardon Attorney’s office, and they review it and then pass the recommendation to the President.


The only requirement for filing is that you do so at least five years after you’ve completed your sentence. According to the website, in deciding whether to recommend a pardon, the office looks at the following factors.

  1. Post-conviction conduct, character, and reputation.
  2. Seriousness and relative recentness of the offense.
  3. Acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and atonement.
  4. Need for relief.
  5. Official recommendations and reports.