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Law and Politics

Presidential Power: Pardon

Explained

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WHAT IT IS

  • To pardon means "to officially say that someone who is guilty of a crime will be allowed to go free and will not be punished." [Merriam-Webster]

  • A presidential pardon enables the U.S. president to eliminate a person’s prison sentence, fines, or probation conditions. It gives a sitting president the power to completely forgive a crime. [USA Today]

  • A pardon can be referred to as "executive clemency." [Department of Justice]

  • The right of executive clemency comes from Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution.

    [National Constitution Center]

 

 

Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution

"and he shall have the Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." [National Constitution Center]

 

 

 

  • Executive clemency allows the president to pardon and issue commutation (reducing a prison sentence). [Department of Justice]

  • The ability to grant a pardon is only applicable to federal cases and crimes. Pardons aren’t applicable to lawsuits. [FiveThirtyEight]

  • Five years after the completion of a jail sentence, a prisoner can apply for a pardon. [Department of Justice]

WHY IT MATTERS

 

CIVICS: The right to pardon provides the president with another broad power of executive decision-making and can be considered one of the most powerful presidential powers. [NPR], [The Chicago Tribune]  

 

President Trump's 2018 comments on self-pardoning sparked constitutional debate - can presidents pardon themselves? It's more complicated than you think. [TIME]

 

FACT: Restraints?

Pardon power

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a president’s power to pardon is applicable to every crime “known to the law.” As a result, there aren’t any restrictions. [The New York Times]

 

Recommended by

Pardon cases are often reviewed by the pardon office, prosecutors, and the Attorney General.

The president often reviews the opinions of these top officials before making a decision.[PBS News Hour]

 

Not for impeachment

The Constitution provides no explicit restrictions on who can be pardoned, except in the instance of impeachment.

 

The president, if impeached, cannot pardon him or herself. [TIME]

 

FACT: Eligibility

Come one, come all

A president has the ability to pardon someone who hasn’t yet been convicted of a crime. [USA Today]

Accepting a presidential pardon doesn’t necessarily mean someone is guilty or not of committing a crime. [The Washington Post]

 

Animals, too!

The sitting president pardons turkeys in an annual Thanksgiving tradition. [Politico]

 

No, thanks

The person the president wishes to pardon can reject the president's pardon. [Politico]

The National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House rejected President Trump's pardon of the suffragist. [NPR]

 

Rights back

If a pardon is granted to someone, that person can then vote, run for office, own guns, and sit on juries. [Vox]

These rights and privileges are not given back to those given commutation. [Department of Justice]

WHERE WE ARE NOW

  • June 2018: President Trump tweeted that he had the right to pardon himself. [The Washington Post]

  • President Trump's comments on self-pardoning sparked constitutional debate - can presidents pardon themselves? It's more complicated than you think. [TIME]

  • See a list of pardons by President Trump from 2016-2019, published by the Department of Justice.

  • Here is a list of President Trump's 2020 pardons.

  • July 11, 2020: President Trump commutes friend, Roger Stone's sentence. Democrats in Congress said the move further undermines the rule of law. [Associated Press]

  • Aug. 2020: On the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, President Trump announced a pardon for Susan B. Anthony. [Reuters]

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

  • What is the difference between pardon and commutation? Learn more with the Department of Justice.

  • According to an AP-NORC poll, 85% of Americans believe it is "unacceptable" for the president to pardon himself. 

  • Here are several expert opinions on the scope of a president’s power to pardon. [Vox]

  • Take a look at how common presidential pardons have been in the past. [Newsweek]

  • Read founding father Alexandar Hamilton's reasoning for pardons, as written in Federalist No. 74.

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This article is aligned with Purple for Democracy,

a movement to support democracy through non-partisan, non-political content. 

Learn more about the Purple movement here

 

 

Key Vocabulary