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February 4, 2008

The sad (unpardonable) state of compassion in the Bush Administration

Writing in today's New York Times, George Lardner has this potent op-ed headlined "Begging Bush's Pardon." Here are a few excerpts from a piece that deserves a full read and lots of attention even while other political matters are making bigger headlines:

The first rule for handling requests for presidential pardons was set down in a report to Congress in 1887, during Grover Cleveland’s first term in office.  It said they were to be sent to the attorney general’s “pardon clerk” for “his prompt and appropriate attention.”

Just as important, according to the report, was that the petitioners were to be given a fair shake.  They were almost always convicted criminals, but that didn’t mean they were all guilty as charged or deserving of the harsh punishments that had been inflicted on them. And so, the pardon attorney in those days was under instructions to “accord to the convict all that he may be fairly entitled to have said in his favor.”  The attorney general, thus provided with “an impartial representation” of the case, was to tell the president what he thought should be done.

Today’s Justice Department seems to have nothing but contempt for those principles.  The Bush White House has seemingly never heard of them.  Thousands of petitioners for clemency have been waiting for years for a ruling, some since before Bill Clinton left office.  Thousands of others have been rejected out of hand, largely because preparing a fair report of what might be said in their favor would take too much time and cost too much money....

The sorry state of the system became apparent last month with the abrupt resignation of the pardon attorney, Roger Adams....  His departure came on the heels of a seven-month investigation of alleged mismanagement by the Justice Department’s inspector general. While Mr. Adams has disputed the findings, a heavily censored report of the investigation, provided to me on Friday under the Freedom of Information Act, found that he made “highly inappropriate” racial remarks concerning a Nigerian petitioner and threatened retaliation against employees who dared complain about other aspects of his work....

Being over-free with pardons has hardly been George W. Bush’s problem. He has granted only 142 pardons, four commutations and one remission (to I. Lewis Libby Jr., the former White House aide) since taking office seven years ago.  President Bush has denied more than 40 requests for every one granted. (President Clinton, by comparison, granted one in seven requests.)...

Oddly, it seems that the White House, in fact, wanted to say yes more often. In early 2006, several Justice Department officials insist, Harriet Miers explicitly asked the pardon attorney for more recommendations that the White House could act on favorably. Mr. Adams, according to one official present at the meeting, replied that he would need a bigger staff to handle the workload. Favorable reports do take more time, requiring F.B.I. background reports, the views of prosecutors and judges if willing to give them, and other opinions like those of prison officials.  Typically, it takes a year to 18 months at best before a positive recommendation can be sent to the White House.  Denials, however, are almost automatic if that is what the Justice Department recommends.

Still, Mr. Adams’s talk of a need for more help rings somewhat hollow. He usually had a staff of six lawyers including himself to handle pardon requests. In the late 1980s, by contrast, the pardon attorney had three lawyers besides himself to process petitions and, under President Ronald Reagan, they saw 406 requests granted, almost three times as many as the current administration. Despite the supposed constitutional restraints on the president’s war-making and lawmaking powers, widely skirted in recent years, his authority to grant pardons is complete, except in cases of impeachment.

But it looks as if it will take a new president devoted to addressing cases of what Alexander Hamilton called “unfortunate guilt” to restore it to its original vigor. Pending appointment of a permanent replacement, the acting pardon attorney is Helen Bollwerk, a former federal prosecutor who has been Mr. Adams’s deputy the last two years. Ms. Bollwerk is not likely to preside over a renaissance. She arrived in the pardons office with a duplicate of a Monopoly “Get Out of Jail” card that had a red-circle-and-slash “no” symbol over it. It’s said that this was a gag her fellow workers in the United States attorney’s office had given her, but there are thousands of pardon petitioners who aren’t laughing.

As regular readers know, I have done lots and lots of posts on the pardon power, on the Libby commutation, on the Bush record and on pardons and the 2008 campaign.  Here is an abridged list of some of these prior posts:

On the pardon power and modern politics:

On the Bush clemency record:

I suspect that P.S. Ruckman at his blog Pardon Power will join me in closely following the fall-out from this significant sentencing story.  I hope that lots of others will focus on this important story, too, though I fear it will get lost in all the buzz now about Super Sunday and Super Tuesday and a super-sized federal budget.

February 4, 2008 at 11:01 AM | Permalink


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It's a rambling puff piece. It's well-known that George W. Bush is generally more stingy with pardons than other presidents have been and that there's a backlog at DOJ in handling pardon requests. The op-ed includes such dubious statistical comparisons as this one:

He has already denied more pardon and clemency petitions than any post-World War II president. In his first seven years in office, he rejected 5,966 requests, almost twice as many as Bill Clinton did in eight years, five times more than his father did in four years, and almost five times as many as Ronald Reagan did in eight years.

Because even the most generous presidents typically grant a small fraction of the pardon requests, this disparity is likely explained by Bush II having received significantly more pardon requests than Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, or George Bush senior.

There's no mention anywhere in the article of just how many pardon requests Bush has received, and how that number compares to past presidents.

This omission is glaring, in my opinion, in light of the fact that Lardner criticizes the former pardon attorney for saying that his office doesn't have the staff it needs:

Still, Mr. Adams’s talk of a need for more help rings somewhat hollow. He usually had a staff of six lawyers including himself to handle pardon requests. In the late 1980s, by contrast, the pardon attorney had three lawyers besides himself to process petitions and, under President Ronald Reagan, they saw 406 requests granted, almost three times as many as the current administration.

If one extrapolates from the two quotes above, it looks like Reagan denied roughly 1200 pardon requests (5966 rounded to 6000 and divided by 5) and granted 406. That means that his office processed roughly 1600 requests.

Similarly, Bush's office has denied 5966 pardon requests and granted roughly 135 (406 / 3). That means that Bush has processed roughly 6000 pardon requests, and there's still a backlog, which Lardner criticizes.

So this means that Bush's people have twice the staff that Reagan did, but are getting roughly four times the number of pardon requests. This means that they have about half the time to spend on each request. Elsewhere in the op-ed, Lardner states that granting a pardon request usually takes lots of time and thorough investigation, which the numbers would seem to indicate that the current administration simply doesn't have.

It could be that the pardon office needs more people, needs better people, or needs better methods of finding meritorious pardon requests.

It could be that George W. Bush is a stingy bastard, but I don't see the op-ed as supporting it. The more moving op-eds I've seen on this point tend to focus more on meritorious cases that were denied instead of trying to twist the numbers in this way.

Unless I've screwed up the math or missed something obvious, Lardner should be embarrassed by the op-ed. It looks like a typical NYTimes hit job: start with the presumption that the current president is the worst one in history, and slap together some numbers and historical references to give the illusion that the conclusion is supported by anything other than emotion.

Posted by: | Feb 4, 2008 11:42:28 AM

So this means that Bush's people have twice the staff that Reagan did, but are getting roughly four times the number of pardon requests.

This should have read "So this means that Bush's people have 1.5 times the staff that Reagan did, but are getting roughly four times the number of pardon requests."

I see that P.S. Ruckman read the op-ed, but hasn't commented on its substance.

Posted by: 11:42 | Feb 4, 2008 12:30:24 PM

Okay, let’s step back. There are many people that think that this administration is evil, mean, and incompetent. We all know that many people think that. We also know that writing some crap in a newspaper won’t change the reality of the way this administration chooses to run itself, for better or worse.

But, maybe, just maybe, there has been an institutional change in the way that the executive views pardons. Today, in any criminal prosecution there are various units (in the executive alone) involved in taking a person from “not a convict” to “incarcerated.” At some level, one can argue that there are checks and balances involved. I would even go so far as to say that there are more checks and balances today, then there were 100 years ago.

So, maybe one can argue that pardon’s don’t serve the same role that they did 100 years ago.

What I would be interested in, however, would be a list of people that a new president would pardon on his FIRST day of office. After all, if the injustices were so great and the power to pardon unreviewable, I am sure that the candidates would speak out about who is most deserving of a pardon.

Posted by: S.cotus | Feb 4, 2008 1:25:16 PM

A request to prove that there is a Death of Compassion in the White House under Bush II is easy to fulfill. Several months ago I plotted in a Flash chart the historical pardon rates, going back more than a century, against the increase in United States population. Please see our site,The Rehabilitated Project and click on the "Death of Compassion" link to see the results - which many tell me are astounding. You see, it is NOT the number of applications submitted or granted in isolation. In order to view Bush II's role in this aspect of history you need to compare his "pool" with that of, say, Dwight Eisenhower. Not doing so would be like saying gold today is not a good buy because it is above its previous historical high. Considering inflation since 1988, today's gold price is a small fraction of the 1988 price. Likewise with Bush II! Only in light of the vastly greater population of today does the niggardliness of Bush's compassion appear.

Posted by: Charles Benninghoff | Feb 20, 2008 10:15:06 AM

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