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All Eyes on Bush’s Pardon Powers in Final Days

December 29, 2008 07:27 AM
by Christopher Coats
Following a relatively inactive eight years of pardons, political observers are waiting to see how George W. Bush will use his unfettered right to pardon in his final days.

Pardon Me?

Using his power to pardon roughly 200 out of a reported 10,000 official requests since taking office in 2001, Bush now faces some of his most controversial decisions in the waning days of his second term.

In the last month, Bush has granted over 30 pardons, including cases of wildlife endangerment and tax embezzlement, but has shown no indication of how he will side on the remaining applications.

Although his term is not complete, Bush’s pardon record amounts to less than half the number granted by Presidents Reagan and Clinton.

Some of the most potentially politically damaging applicants include former Congressman Randal "Duke" Cunningham, who was convicted of accepting bribes, and financier Michael Milken, who served time after being indicted on 98 counts of racketeering and securities fraud.

While Milken is no longer in prison, a presidential pardon would restore his rights as a non-felon, essentially forgiving the crime committed. A president also has a limited right to grant clemency, which is a forgiveness of the time meant to be served for a crime, or a commutation, which amounts to an immediate release from prison.

A recent example of a request for a commutation comes with the appeal of John Walker Lindh, who was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison after being taken into custody in Afghanistan and charged with providing material assistance to a terrorist organization.

A pardon can be granted either as full or conditional, and an applicant for either must have completed their prison term and expressed regret for their crimes.

However Bush chooses to side with the remaining applicants, the more controversial pardons are not likely to be decided on until the final days of his time in office, if history is any indication.

Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton all issued last-minute pardons that were deemed controversial and questionable by critics and media observers. While the elder Bush’s pardoning of those individuals tied to the Iran-Contra scandal attracted no shortage of criticism, Clinton’s wave of last-minute pardons resulted in a storm of questions.

On his final day in office, Clinton issued 140 pardons.

According to Newsweek, Bush’s stinginess with pardons during his time in office and the attention paid to a president’s final days make it unlikely he will pursue a wave of last-minute pardons, though that has not stopped some from speculating on who will cause the most headaches. 

Although he has not officially applied for a pardon himself, former vice presidential advisor I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby has reportedly received support from friends to receive one, though the implication that Bush granted the request for personal reasons could result in controversy.

Following Libby’s sentencing, Bush commuted his sentence but did not provide for a full pardon.
However, the most closely-watched pardon possibility comes with reports that Bush might pursue a blanket pardon for all those “involved in formulating Bush administration legal justifications for interrogation and expansive presidential war powers” or those CIA agents charged with carrying them out.

A blanket pardon is a broad decree covering unnamed individuals and was used by Jimmy Carter to pardon those who had avoided the Vietnam draft.

Whatever the outgoing president chooses to do with the remaining pardon applications, it is unlikely to make everyone happy, but given the history of the presidential pardon, this is nothing new.

Since George Washington offered the nation’s first presidential pardons when he asked that those who had taken part in the Whiskey Rebellion be spared punishment, the pardon process has always resulted in some sort of controversy.

Opinion & Analysis: Warnings to be selective

Following the announcement of Bush’s recent 14 pardons and in anticipation of his final days in office, The Los Angeles Times suggested that the president avoid any pardon applications that could be viewed as political, mentioning the case of Scooter Libby specifically, or high-profile celebrity appeals, such as sprinter Marion Jones.
They also made a direct appeal to consider commuting the sentence of John Walked Lindh, arguing that his 20-year sentence did not fit the crime he was accused of.

Human Rights Watch offered their own opinion on Bush’s upcoming decisions, asking that he not issue any blanket pardons for those involved in the shaping and enforcing of the United States’ stance on torture and abuse of detainees.

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