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April 9, 2010

"Obama should exercise the pardon power"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary in the National Law Journal from Kenneth Lee, who served as an associate counsel to President George W. Bush and assisted with presidential pardons. Here are some excerpts:

President Obama's inaction on pardons is understandable. President Ford grievously damaged his re-election prospects by pardoning Nixon. And President Clinton's midnight pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich generated a bitter and bipartisan backlash. For presidents, it may seem that there are substantial political liabilities but no real short-term benefits in issuing pardons.

Yet the pardon power is an important tool to provide a second chance for hard-luck Americans as well as to redeem the reputations of successful individuals who continue to bear the burden for mistakes made years ago. Obama should not hesitate or further delay exercising this power with vigor....

Despite the positive impact that clemency can have on so many lives, presidents often are loath to exercise their pardon power vigorously due to potential political liability. Understandably, no president wants to have a Willie Horton on his hands if a freed felon commits another crime. And after Marc Rich's pardon, presidents also fear being accused of a quid pro quo if the recipient is politically well-connected.

But these fears of political backlash are greatly exaggerated. Bush and Clinton each granted hundreds of acts of clemency, but there have not been any reported cases of recidivism. This sterling record can be attributed to stringent vetting of potential candidates....

In recent months, Obama has learned to appreciate the expansive reach of executive power. He has made recess appointments of stalled nominees and issued an executive order that was critical to the passage of the health care bill. He should now exercise the most plenary of presidential powers and issue his first batch of pardons. With the mere stroke of his pen, Obama has the power to bring hope to numerous Americans seeking a second chance.

As regular readers know, I have been urging President Obama to exercise his clemency power with vigor since literally his very first day in the Oval Office:

April 9, 2010 at 09:43 PM | Permalink


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Gritsforbreakfast has a post about how President Lyndon Johnson drew flak for exercising his power to commute sentences, and how commutations (and, by inference, pardons), have decreased since then. I think one explanation for the decreased use of executive clemency is sentencing guidelines. As they take the extreme cases out of the system, there is less of a perceived need to exercise clemency, because the conviction was, by definition, just, and the punishment, by definition, reasonable. And, as the courts have become more conservative over the last 40 years, no elected politician wants to look soft on crime.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Apr 12, 2010 3:07:59 PM

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