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The President's Power to Pardon

Seal-presidential-color Thus far, President George W. Bush has pardoned 14 people as his tenure ends as commander-in-chief of the United States. Those pardoned were convicted of various crimes including theft of government property, tax evasion and embezzlement. Should you think something wrong with that, know that President Bush has pardoned far fewer individuals than previous presidents. 

For background information on the power of the President to grant a pardon, here's an excerpt on presidential pardons provided by the University of California's Institute of Governmental Studies.  

The Pardon Power

Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the president "Power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."  A reprieve reduces the severity of a punishment without removing the guilt of the person reprieved.  A pardon removes both punishment and guilt.

As judicially interpreted, the president's power to grant reprieves and pardons is absolute.  Individual reprieves and pardons cannot be blocked by Congress or the courts.  The Framers of the Constitution envisioned the pardon power has having a narrow purpose in times of war and rebellion.  The president might offer pardons to rebellious factions as an inducement for a laying down of arms and national reconciliation.  Alexander Hamilton argued  in the Federalist Papers (No. 74) that "in seasons of insurrection or rebellion, there are often critical moments, when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquillity of the common wealth; and which, if suffered to pass unimproved, it may never be possible afterwards to recall."

The pardon power has been used as the Framers foresaw:  George Washington pardoned leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion, and Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederate soldiers following the Civil War.  In 20th century, Jimmy Carter pardoned those who had evaded service in the Vietnam War.

But a long succession of presidents has used the pardon power much more broadly.  Bill Clinton is but the latest president to use the pardon power to forgive a wide range of criminal offenses.

Many pardons have been controversial.  Perhaps the most controversial was Gerald Ford's preemptive 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon for his actions in the Watergate Affair.  More recently, George Bush's 1992 pardons of six Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-Contra Affair, including Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, generated considerable negative comment.


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