As Obama continues to roll out the pardons and commutation of sentences for people convicted of federal criminal laws, it is important to point out that these actions are, for better or worse, as American as apple pie.
The United States Constitution gives the President of the United States the power of executive clemency, which includes the ability to pardon a person convicted of a federal offense.
The president can also commute the sentence of a federal inmate.
A pardon is an executive order granting clemency for a past conviction, the sentence of which has already been completed. Its practical effect is the restoration of civil rights (firearm rights, right to vote, serve on a jury, etc.) associated with a past criminal conviction.
A presidential pardon is a sign of forgiveness. It is not a vindication and it does not erase or expunge the record of conviction.
A commutation is the shortening of the sentence of someone currently serving a sentence for a crime pursuant to a conviction. It does not vacate the conviction itself. The president may substitute a less severe punishment in place of the punishment originally imposed. When a sentence is commuted, the recipient doesn’t get back the rights of a citizen (only a subsequent pardon can do that.)
The president can also pardon masses of people at a time, as Jimmy Carter did in 1977. Evading the draft is a violation of the Military Selective Service Act. During the Vietnam War, an estimated 200,000 people dodged the draft. President Carter pardoned these people in 1977.
Over the years, there have been some interesting and famous pardons. Here are a few:
George Steinbrenner - In 1974, the longtime New York Yankees owner pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon and obstruction of justice charges. Although he did not go to jail, Steinbrenner was fined $15,000. As one of his final acts as president, Ronald Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner. He was likely pardoned because he aided the FBI in two separate investigations between 1978 and 1983.
Oscar Collazo. He tried to assassinate President Harry Truman, who commuted his sentence in 1952 from death to life in prison. In 1979, President Carter pardoned and freed Collazo.
Jimmy Hoffa. The former Teamsters union leader was convicted of mail fraud and jury tampering, receiving a 13-year sentence. Richard Nixon commuted his sentence after he had served almost 5 years. Shortly thereafter, Hoffa disappeared and is presumed dead. (perhaps somewhere in the swamps of New Jersey).
Marc Rich. He was an international commodities trader and entrepreneur, who was indicted in 1983 on federal charges of tax evasion and making oil deals with Iran during the hostage crisis of 1971-1981. He was in Switzerland when the indictment was handed down, and did not return to the U.S. President Clinton pardoned him in 2001, just hours before leaving office, claiming that the events that formed the basis for the indictment were better handled in civil suits, not as criminal charges. This was a controversial pardon because some believe that the pardon was bought.
Richard Nixon. Perhaps the most famous pardon in history. Nixon resigned from office in August 1974 amid accusations of malfeasance related to the Watergate investigation. But, while there was a possibility that Nixon could have been prosecuted and even jailed, he was granted a full pardon by new President Gerald Ford only weeks after Nixon stepping down.
It is widely believed that this pardon significantly contributed to Ford’s defeat in the 1976 presidential election.
Well, pardons and commutations have been, and always will be, controversial. However, presidents from both parties, from every decade in American history, and from every aspect of the political spectrum have exercised this presidential power.
I expect to see many more pardons from Obama before he leaves office in the next few months. It will be interesting to see who these beneficiaries will be.