The United States Constitution confers upon the president the power "to grant reprieves and pardons." Presidents throughout history have exercised this power frequently, sometimes generating significant controversy and outrage. Here are some of the most notorious and controversial pardons made by various presidents over the last few centuries.
The executive clemency power specified in the U.S. Constitution involves not just the power to pardon an individual, but also includes the authority to commute a sentence and grant a reprieve and the remission of a fine or restitution. The executive clemency power extends only to federal crimes and gives the president no authority over individuals convicted in state court or by other, lesser authorities.
The pardon is the most comprehensive act of executive clemency and restores civil rights to an individual, including the right to vote, to hold elected office and serve on a jury. The President is advised on executive clemency requests by the Office of the Pardon Attorney within the Department of Justice. The application for a presidential pardon is incredibly detailed and runs 23 pages and requires applicants to have three affidavits attesting to the character of the petitioner.
The Watergate Scandal
President Gerald Ford stirred up controversy in 1974 when he issued a pardon to former President Richard Nixon. The pardon was issued a month after Nixon's resignation and covered not only criminal activity related to the ongoing Watergate scandal but also any act committed by Nixon during his term in office.
The Nixon pardon stirred up so much anger that an attempt was made to amend the constitution to allow presidential pardons to be overturned by a two-thirds vote of Congress. The attempt failed, and the president retained his full clemency power. Ford issued 382 pardons during his time in office, a fairly high number considering he was only in office for 29 months.
President Carter wasted no time in exercising his clemency power and on his first day in office issued a pardon to those Americans who avoided the military draft during the Vietnam War. The pardon covered those who fled the jurisdiction of the United States or failed to register as required. Carter granted 534 pardons during his single term in the White House.
Mass pardons like this are not unprecedented throughout history. President Andrew Johnson issued a pardon in May 1865 to those Confederates who "participated in the existing rebellion" upon taking an oath of allegiance to the U.S. government. The pardon excluded many top Confederate officials, and in late 1868 President Johnson issued his fourth pardon or amnesty related to the Civil War and extended it to all individuals who were a part of the rebellion.
President George Bush outraged many in December 1992, when he issued pardons to Caspar Weinberger, the former Secretary of Defense, and five others, for their roles in the Iran-Contra affair. Bush cited the long history of government service by Weinberger and the other five officials and called their potential prosecution "the criminalization of policy differences" that are better settled in the voting booth. Bush was stingy with his pardon power relative to his peers and issued only 74 pardons in his four years in office.
President Clinton exercised his pardon power frequently and granted 396 pardons during his two terms in office. One that generated criticism was the pardon issued on his last day as president in 2001 to Marc Rich. Rich was indicted in 1983 for 51 counts of tax fraud and evading $48 million in taxes and had been living in Switzerland as a fugitive. After Clinton left office, it was reported that Rich's ex-wife had made sizable campaign contributions and donations to the Clinton Presidential Library.
In 1893, President Benjamin Harrison issued an unusual act of clemency, with a mass pardon to all members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The pardon covered all members who committed an act of polygamy and came after the leadership of the Mormon Church disavowed this controversial practice.
It's conceivable that the Founding Fathers were not worried about giving one individual such absolute authority, as the U.S. Constitution as originally written specified only treason, piracy, and counterfeiting as federal crimes. After more than 200 years of growth in the government, approximately 4,500 criminal offenses are under the jurisdiction of the federal government.
The Bottom Line
The presidential pardon and other acts of executive clemency are some of the few absolute powers that the president can exercise, free from interference from the legislative branch. The number of individuals seeking pardons has grown with the size and role of the federal government, making it important that the clemency power is used wisely.