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November 24th, 2008
07:59 PM ET

A President's absolute power – Pardons

Program Note: See CNN Senior Analyst Jeffrey Toobin's analysis of President Bush's pardon today of more than a dozen convicts on AC360 tonight at 10pm.

Terry Frieden
CNN Justice Department Producer

The President has such total absolute power in granting clemency that he does not even have to receive a request for a pardon or commutation to grant one.

Most clemency applications are made to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney where an elaborate and detailed process is followed. After checks which include consultation with the FBI and prosecutors and judges and corrections officials, a recommendation for granting or denying clemency eventually goes to the Deputy Attorney General who may change it, or send it back, or forward it to the White House General Counsel. And finally it goes to the President.

That’s the normal procedure. That’s how most pardons and commutations are screened and ultimately approved. But none of the reasons for granting a pardon or commutation are ever made public, so we don’t know WHY a President and his administration officials approve the applications. We do know most applications received are ultimately rejected because the Justice Department annually lists the number of petitions received, granted, and denied.

And every time a list of pardons comes out, once or twice or three times a year, it prompts puzzled looks, because so many of the crimes seem to be garden variety drug or fraud cases, and it remains a mystery what exactly prompts Presidential intervention.

A pardon is a forgiveness for the commission of a federal crime. It cannot be filed until five years after an individual has finished serving his sentence and parole, or until five years after a conviction if there was no sentence. A commutation is a shortened sentenced for someone serving time. It does not forgive the crime, or wipe it off the books, but simply shortens or immediately ends the prison sentence.

But because the President’s Constitutional power over pardons is unchecked—a friend or neighbor of the President can bypass the whole process and go straight to the President who can ignore the facts, the history, and grant a pardon or commutation and nothing but can be done to stop it.

Such was the case with fugitive Marc Rich, on President Clinton’s final morning as President. The Pardon Attorney who had no idea Rich had gone to the White House through his lawyer until hours before President Clinton left office. He called Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder who said in fact he did know about it. The Pardon Attorney then sent a note to the White House that if they wanted a pardon they could apply through his office, but the deal was done, and the pardon was granted.

Such a thing could happen on President Bush’s last day too. It’s all perfectly legal.

soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Eascogal

    President Bush ought to pardon the peoples bad debts resulting from his bad judgments. If the people can bail out Wall Street, and big Banks like Citigroup, then the govenment can bail out taxpayers by pardoning bad credit so we can begin fresh once again like the business getting bailouts!

    November 25, 2008 at 10:33 am |
  2. Amos

    Pardon the prisoners at GITMO so the new adminisration can begin the shut-down process. President Bush can help clean up his mess!

    November 25, 2008 at 10:30 am |
  3. Jen

    I still can't believe we elected that crooked monster.

    November 24, 2008 at 9:03 pm |

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