Criminal Justice

Obama Pardon Tally: Flightless Fowl 1, Human Beings 0

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Debra Saunders laments that 10 months into his presidency, Barack Obama's first presidential pardon has gone to…a turkey.

According to political science Professor P.S. Ruckman Jr. of Rock Valley College in Illinois, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has taken longer to use the executive pardon and commutation power than all but four presidents—George Washington, John Adams, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Obama hasn't pardoned a single ex-offender, even though about 1,200 people have asked for pardons because they have turned their lives around, expressed remorse for their crimes and now want to wipe the criminal slate clean of long-past offenses for which they paid the penalty.

Nor has Obama commuted the sentence of any of the 2,000 or so federal inmates seeking sentence reductions—many because of draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences.

Saunders notes that when he served in the Clinton administration, Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder's record with the pardon power was stingy, making exceptions of course for political patronage.

It's telling that over the last three administrations, the one executive power Clinton, Bush, and Obama have been reluctant to make broad use of is the one that grants clemency, forgiveness, and justice to the governed.

I do disagree with Saunders on one point, though. She writes:

Of course, the pardon doesn't free anyone. It is a reward for reformed offenders who, after serving their sentences, have led exemplary lives and want a clean criminal slate so that they can vote or look for a job without revealing their past.

Forgiveness for contrite, admitted convicts has become the most common use of the pardon power. But it isn't the only reason the Founders gave it to the president. It was also intended to be a last check against injustice. Here's Alexander Hamilton defending the pardon power in Federalist 74:

The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel. As the sense of responsibility is always strongest, in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance.

Unfortunately, the pardon power is almost never used in this way. Unless you happen to be the former vice president's former chief of staff.

Professor Ruckman, by the way, has a terrific blog dedicated solely to the pardon power.

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  1. Wow, I can’t believe I’m actually agreeing with Hamilton. I’m sure he must have wanted that power to use for himself once he became President. Nice little tool to have in your back pocket.

  2. As statist as Hamilton was, one cannot deny the almost unimaginable force is his intellect.

    He was running an international shipping industry when he was 12 or so, for fuck’s sake.

    He was probably the most book-smart of the founding fathers, and definitely in the upper trifecta with Franklin and Jefferson.

  3. The turkey is light-skinned. Just sayin…

  4. “””Unfortunately, the pardon power is almost never used in this way. Unless you happen to be the former vice president’s former chief of staff. “””

    When was Libby Pardoned or are we talking about someone else?

    1. Pedants can replace “pardon” with “clemency” in that sentence without changing the point.

  5. He pardoned two turkeys. Courage and Carolina.

  6. Did he bow to the turkey?

  7. If the laws are too draconian, the solution is to change the laws–for everyone. If people think that people who have turned their lives around after committing a crime should be let off, write that into the law.

    Pardons are a bad idea because they flout the rule of law. They create one set of rules for some people, and a different set of rules for other (often politically connected) people. They should be done away with entirely.

    1. So qwerty, do you think you could write a comprehensive set of laws, under which there would be no unjustly severe sentences?

      Buidling a perfect system is impossible, and a review process that allows for flouting of laws when they don’t really apply in a particular situation is a powerfully good innovation.

      1. An imperfect justice system is much better than an arbitrary one. The advantages to the rule of law are that everyone follows the same rules, and if a mistake is made, a correction can be made that also fixes similar situations in the future.

        I certainly think I could do better writing a comprehensive set of laws than trusting Clinton, Bush, and Obama to pardon people they like.

  8. Interesting that the use of the pardon has been more delayed and sparse in the first two and last two presidents.

  9. The turkeys were also given advice on how to sidestep taxes on their brothel…

  10. I think perhaps moderate and leftist presidents might suffer from the Only Nixon Could Go To China Syndrome. The fear of being called soft on crime is great for all but the harshest of crimebusting politician.

  11. Believing that “moderate and leftist presidents” are actually something that could be “called soft on crime” is where you fail, Fist.

    Leftist states tend to have a few prisons.

    1. You’re missing his point, cent. Through the 60’s and early 70’s, left-leaning victimologists and their political allies (almost always Democrats) pushed through “reforms” that basically just made it easy for real scumbags (murderers, rapists) to avoid prison time, or do ridiculously short sentences. (At one point, the average time served for murder in CA was 4 years).

      This (along with other factors) led to a massive increase in crime, and an eventual backlash. Soon, it became a political hot-button issue that Republicans exploited (e.g., Willie Horton).

      After (D) pols got beaten over the head on this for a while (and beat at the polls), they responded by getting just as tough as the (R)s – to show they weren’t “soft”.

      The Dems still fear that attack. Since Republicans have been known as the law-and-order party since at least Nixon, they have less to fear from being called soft on crime, just like Nixon himself had little to fear as being called soft on Communism for going to China, since he had the anti-commie cred.

  12. There is also an interesting nexus between Clinton and Obama – at least in terms of the now Attorney General Eric Holder and Clintons’ most shameful pardon ever – Marc Rich. Holder, then with the Justice Dept made a favorable recommendation to pardon Rich in a last minute deal which was surely unconnected with the various campaign contributions received from the (then) fugitive financiers’ wife.

  13. He’s got to save those pardons to use with various ACORN and SEIU people later on….

  14. This dude dithers with the best of ’em.

  15. Why do they pardon the turkeys?

    Seriously, I would love to see a president have the balls to go out and chop the head off a turkey. After it was done flopping around and he had plucked it he could give a big speech about our rich agrarian past.

    Let the kids see how they get those nice turkey dinners.

    At a minimum he should taze a lobster or two. (This dude needs to hire the Lobster Girl as a celebrity endorser.)

  16. Yeah, why the hell did he “pardon” the turkeys? As some fop to vegetarians? What are they going to eat tomorrow, tofurkey? My shorts? Leg of Steve Smith?

    1. I would give a certain one-word answer, but I don’t want Reason ratting me out to my employer.

      1. Man, you really have to keep up with current events to get the obscure references around here.

        You don’t work for a public school, do you?

    2. Yeah, why the hell did he “pardon” the turkeys?

      To feign compassion.

      They’re gonna be eating turkey in the White House tomorrow. Just not the pardoned one.

  17. Saunders notes that when he served in the Clinton administration, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder’s record with the pardon power was stingy

    Wait, the Attorney General (or whatever lower position Holder held during the Clinton admin) have the pardon power now?

    1. When Holder was Deputy AG under Clinton, he was part of the team that vetted pardon applications prior to sending them up to the President for approval.

      1. Correction: Sort of – there wasn’t a formal ‘team’ per se, but some of the pardon requests went through Holder’s office for input and coordination with the White House Counsel’s office.

  18. Ghost of Willie Horton?

    Now, no politician wants to touch criminals while they are still politically viable.

  19. On my local AM talker this morning, they had a guy who explained the history of the White House turkey deal. Apparently George H. W. Bush was the first prez to actually pardon the turkey.

    Before that, the tradition was that the offered turkey ended up on the White House dinner table.

    This guy told a slightly humorous story about Harry Truman – who apparently offered to do the turkey decapitating himself out there on the White House lawn.

    So the turkey “pardon” is a pretty recent invention.

  20. Those turkeys should answer for their crimes!

  21. As for those Easter lambs, fuck ’em!

    1. Sheep fucker.

      (apparently the words “sheep fucker” are not English per the spam nazi, the spam nazi is a sheep fucker)

  22. Wait, he’s pardoned turkeys, but hasn’t done anything about the number of people convicted for drug possession and other victimless crimes that are overcrowding our prisons and costing the states millions?

    Politics as usual? YES WE CAN!

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