Understanding Pardons and Commutations
Putting the Libby case in perspective
What is a commutation?
A commutation is the reduction or elimination of a legally issued sentence. Though the punishment may be reduced, the record of conviction is unchanged and the person is still considered to be guilty of the offense. For example, a death sentence may be commuted to life in prison. Commutation cannot be used pre-emptively but must follow the legal proceedings of trial and sentencing.
What is a pardon?
A pardon is legal forgiveness for a crime, removing guilt and punishment. The president's right to issue pardons in federal cases is spelled out in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which describes the "Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in cases of Impeachment." A president has wide discretion to use the pardon, and it is not subject to congressional approval. The one exception: Pardons may not be used to halt impeachment proceedings. The framers of the Constitution intended the pardon power to be used to preserve "the tranquility of the commonwealth."
Unlike commutation, a pardon may be granted at any time before or after trial and conviction. A person who is granted a pardon returns to the legal status he held prior to the crime, may vote, and may hold a passport. Some states, however, prohibit pardoned people from some activities, such as holding local office.
Facts About Clemency:
· The presidential pardon was first used by George Washington in 1792, to stop the Whiskey Rebellion. In Pennsylvania, whiskey makers were resisting taxation and regulation, and all efforts to end the violence failed until Washington granted clemency to the farmers.
· Following the Civil War, Andrew Johnson granted amnesty, or a pardon for a large class of people: those who had fought for the Confederacy. Lincoln also granted pardons to restore voting rights to Southerners.
· The president who issued the most pardons or commutations was Franklin Roosevelt, with a total of 3,687 over his four terms in office. Several thousand of these were for convicted criminals who served in the military during World War II.
· Numbers of pardons and commutations granted by recent presidents:
· John Kennedy: 472 pardons, 100 commutations
· Lyndon Johnson: 960 pardons, 226 commutations
· Richard Nixon: 863 pardons, 60 commutations
· Gerald Ford: 382 pardons, 22 commutations
· Jimmy Carter: 534 pardons, 29 commutations
· Ronald Reagan: 393 pardons, 13 commutations
· George H. W. Bush: 74 pardons, 3 commutations
· Bill Clinton: 396 pardons, 61 commutations
· George W. Bush: as of today, 113 pardons, 4 commutations
· Presidents may place conditions on their pardons. For example, in 1971 Nixon pardoned Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa for jury tampering, on the condition that he no longer engage in union activity.
· In 1974, Ford issued a "full, free, and absolute pardon" to Nixon for his Watergate activities. In Ford's statement, he said that he wished to avoid the "prolonged and divisive debate" that a trial would bring. This highly controversial pardon, the only one to be given to a former president, contributed to Ford's defeat in the 1976 election.
· George H. W. Bush granted only 74 pardons—the fewest of any modern president. Six of these were issued to Iran-contra figures, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, on Christmas Eve, 1992.
· Clinton used his reprieve power relatively sparingly until his last days in office, when he signed 141 pardons and 36 sentence commutations. The most controversial of these was a pardon for financier Marc Rich, whose former wife Denise was a financial contributor to the Democratic Party.
· Any felon has the right to apply for a pardon. Requests are received by the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which considers the petition and advises the attorney general on the facts of the case. The Justice Department then makes a recommendation to the president. Pardons initiated in the White House, which are rare, do not go through this process.
Congressional Quarterly's Guide to the Presidency, second edition
Facts About the Presidents, seventh edition
The Presidency A to Z
U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Pardon Attorney
U.S. News and World Report