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June 8, 2019

Hoping Prez Trump picks a Pardon Attorney eager to make good on his big clemency talk

Around this time last year, as highlighted in posts here and here and here, President Trump was talking up the possibility of granting clemency to lots and lots of folks. (Talking to reporters in June 2018, he said “We have 3,000 names. We’re looking at them. Of the 3,000 names, many of those names have been treated unfairly,” and their sentences are “far too long.”)

Fast forward a year, and Prez Trump is nowhere near walking the clemency walk after having talked the clemency talk.  But, as this recent Washington Examiner article hints, perhaps there is movement afoot on this front as the Justice Department seeks to find a new (and needed) Pardon Attorney.  The article is headlined "Trump urged to pick his own pardon attorney," and here are excerpts:

Worried clemency advocates are urging President Trump to select his own pardon attorney as the Justice Department reviews a stack of resumes collected on short notice.

There hasn’t been a political appointee in the post since the 1970s under President Jimmy Carter, but advocates say it could make a big difference, enhancing the position’s stature and ensuring that Trump’s interest in giving second chances extends beyond isolated cases. “I think it makes a lot of sense to have the pardon attorney job be a political one,” said Margaret Love, U.S. pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997.

The job posting was open for just a month, closing May 10, giving Love and others the impression the department may already have a candidate in mind and creating concern that a career prosecutor could take the helm.

“I wonder if they are going to make Trump aware of [the search]. Shouldn’t the president have some say over who his pardon attorney is?" said Sam Morison, who worked for 13 years as a staff attorney in the Office of the Pardon Attorney. “If they are just going to the U.S. attorney's offices, they are going to get someone who's a company man, and that's the idea,” he said.

Morison wants Trump to pick his own pardon attorney and move the office into the White House, citing institutional weight against clemency in cases the Justice Department itself prosecuted.

Though theoretically authorized to call the White House counsel, the pardon attorney reports to the deputy attorney general. In 2016, Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff quit, citing squelched White House contact. Since then, the office has lacked a permanent leader.

Morison, who now helps clemency applicants, is hopeful based on Trump’s public remarks, including that there are “a lot of people” in prison for “no reason.”

“Trump gets a lot of criticism, but I think it's refreshing for him to admit something everyone knows to be truth: The Justice Department is not perfect, and prosecutions are not perfect. Most presidents aren’t actually willing to acknowledge that,” Morison said. “I think Trump does not trust DOJ, and in this particular instance he's probably correct.”

The White House has considered criminal justice reforms, including during a September panel featuring Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner and celebrity Kim Kardashian.

Heritage Foundation scholar and panelist Paul Larkin, who wants Trump to create a White House Office of Executive Clemency, returned to the White House in April for a private group discussion on clemency reform. Larkin noted Trump can create a West Wing office without congressional action and holds the exclusive constitutional power to pardon. Larkin separately advocates a commission to vet clemency requests, but that would require legislation.

CAN-DO founder Amy Povah, whose group favors “Clemency for All Non-Violent Drug Offenders,” also wants the pardon attorney divorced from the Justice Department. “We are relying on President Trump to finally be the hero we've been waiting for because he is an outsider who doesn't worry about shaking up the status quo,” she said....

The job posting closed as Trump fell behind former President Barack Obama on clemency. Trump has freed four prisoners, giving 12 people clemency including pardons, nearly all at the urging of politicians or celebrities. At this point in his presidency, Obama had issued 17 clemency grants.

One person said to have applied to be pardon attorney, immigration judge and former Guantánamo Bay prosecutor Stuart Couch, declined an interview request. White House spokeswoman Mercedes Schlapp declined to say if Trump was aware of the job opening or planned to intervene.

Last year around this time, I had become (too) hopeful that Prez Trump was prepared to change in various ways the process and politics around clemency. But, a year later, I am back to (more justifiable) pessimism and cynicism on this front. I still think it possible, especially in the wake of the praise that Prez Trump has received from his commutation of Alice Johnson's life sentence and his support for the FIRST STEP Act, that Prez Trump and his team could do something big here. But I am not holding my breath, and I feel especially bad for all the federal prisoners and their families who have likely also been hoping for too much from this Prez on this front.

A few of many recent related posts: 

June 8, 2019 at 10:06 AM | Permalink

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