Haley Barbour Was Right to Issue Those Pardons

The United States has a proud tradition of executive clemency.

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Back in the 1990s, I wrote many speeches for Gov. Haley Barbour when he was the head of the Republican National Committee. Now he's finishing his second term as governor of Mississippi and had a lot of people urging him to run for president this year. When you write a lot of speeches for someone, you get to know that person pretty well. Haley Barbour is an honorable, decent man. He's compassionate and treats the people who work for him well. He's also a lawyer, and is one of the smartest people I know in politics.

Now Barbour is in the news because he pardoned over 200 people on his final day in office, some of whom were convicted of violent crimes. His decision to grant pardons—which allow their records to be expunged, as well as to vote, hunt, and get various licenses—may be controversial, but it's not illegal.

[Read Washington Whispers: 2010 Turkeys Pardoned By Obama Died This Year]

Mississippi's democratic attorney general, the very partisan Jim Hood, is trying to stop some of the pardons on the grounds that the governor's office didn't give sufficient notice, but Barbour has every right to do what he did. One of the surprising things about his pardons is how many he issued; these days no one gives many pardons out because of the uproar that seems to accompany them every time. My former boss, President George H.W. Bush also took a lot of heat for pardons he issued as he left office; so did President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. What Barbour's going through right now is exactly why presidents are giving out fewer and fewer pardons.

The United States has a long and proud tradition of executive clemency, at the state level by governors and at the federal level by the president. Alexander Hamilton defended the need for pardons in the Federalist Papers (No. 74):

Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered ... without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too ... cruel.

Before I worked for then-Chairman Barbour, I served as spokesman for the attorney general of the United States, to whom the Office of the Pardon Attorney reports. I remember many speeches General William Barr—he was no bleeding heart liberal—gave about the need for mercy in our system. He often made the point that we need to have tough laws, swift punishment, and certainty of prosecution up front under the criminal law, so that we can ensure a system that brings justice to the victims—but we also must have a system that has room for mercy and compassion in the end. That's where pardons come in. (Similarly, we also need to have the toughest border security in the world to protect against illegal immigration, Barr would point out, so that we can have the most generous legal immigration policies in the world.)

While I don't know the facts of these cases, nor am I a lawyer, I suspect there's a lot more to the story when it comes to these pardons. As Barbour's office pointed out, the vast majority of those whom he pardoned had already served their full sentences, and his pardons were based on the recommendations of the parole board. I'd bet that at least a few of them were convicted under questionable circumstances, and may or may not have had the benefit of DNA evidence when they were originally tried. I'm sure the governor has seen, as the rest of us have, the increasingly unjust nature of our court system these days. Is there anyone who thinks our criminal justice system isn't tough enough? 

Haley Barbour is a smart, humane man. He understands the need for mercy and compassion in our criminal justice system. He's done nothing wrong.

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