Will President Obama Commute Clarence Aaron's Sentence?


Pro Publica's investigative piece revealing everything that went wrong in the processing of Clarence Aaron's pardon application at the tail-end of the Bush Administration has brought some renewed attention to both Aaron's case and the Office of the Pardon Attorney that handles such requests.

Clarence Aaron is serving life in prison on drug-related charges despite not being involved in their purchase or distribution. Though the U.S. Attorney and the District Judge both recommended Aaron's sentence be commuted, that recommendation never got to President Bush, having been lost along the way by the pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers.

The San Francisco Chronicle's "token conservative" columnist Debra Saunders, who's been advocating for clemency for Clarence Aaron for nearly a decade, called on President Obama to pardon Aaron yesterday:

Barack Obama has a decision to make. The president has the power to pardon when the criminal justice system overreaches. The court put away a first-time nonviolent offender for life with no chance of parole, but because the feds do not want to admit they made a mistake, Rodgers and his ilk have been willing to let a young man rot in prison for the rest of his life. The only question is: Will the president let him get away with it?

While Ronald Rodgers is still on the job as pardon attorney, there's no requirement that the president's pardon be approved by the pardon attorney's office first.  The ability to pardon is a Constitutional power afforded solely to the president. Unlike, say, his power to wage war (at least theoretically necessitating a Congressional declaration of war first) or his power to negotiate treaties (which need to be ratified by the Senate), the president's power to pardon is unchecked by any other branch and rests in his hands alone.

Moreover, from ProPublica:

President Obama's former White House counsel Gregory B. Craig said the president could issue an executive order eliminating the pardon office. "We cannot improve or strengthen the exercise of this power without taking it out of the Department of Justice," Craig said.

And unlike, say, the executive order to shut down Guantanamo, an executive order eliminating the pardon office couldn't be subverted by an unwilling Congress, because it doesn't require additional funding or Congressional authorization.

As for the public pressure that might be necessary to get the president to act, petitions to commute Clarence Aaron's sentence on the White House's petition site as well as on Change.org are not doing so well yet.

As Jacob Sullum noted about the Clarence Aaron case and presidential pardons earlier this week, while President Bush granted one in a thousand commutations, President Obama has commuted fewer than one in 5,000 sentences, freeing exactly one person from jail and continuing the trend of modern presidents underutilizing their power to pardon while seeking more power almost everywhere else.