The distribution of the power of the government has been a significant issue throughout the history of the United States. Experience with the tyrannical (or perhaps just colonial) British Empire in the 1700s has left an everlasting stain on the American psyche in regards to concentration of power.
In response, our constitution spells out a system of checks and balances that is crucial in preventing the abuse of power by any of our elected officials. No system is truly perfect, but measures must be taken to ensure that any possible abuses or injustices be removed in order to improve our government. The Founding Fathers specifically recognized the inherent flaws in the judicial system of our nation, and created a clever solution. The Constitution clearly states that the President has the power “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” By allowing the Executive Branch of our government to essentially make decisions for the Judicial Branch, the Constitution strengthens and improves the government of our nation.
The American judicial system is clearly flawed. Newspapers often report murderers walking free and simple trials of that eventuallylead to innocent rulings lasting decades before a decision is made. The inefficiencies of appeals can keep innocent candidates from reprieve for long past their proper debt to society. At the same time, corrupt juries, judges, and judicial loopholes can allow obviously guilty parties to escape unscathed. Prisoners who have been sentenced to death stagnate on death row, usually for the duration of their lifetime.
The use of the presidential pardon combats half of these flaws in the judicial system. While the president cannot levy a just punishment on an obviously guilty party, the clemency powers spelled out by the Constitution allow the pardoning of those who are obviously innocent, or at the very least have fulfilled their societal debt.
Every four years, our nation turns out in droves to select the commander-in-chief, the face of our nation, and arguably the driving force behind our nation’s foreign and domestic policies. In selecting a president, voters choose the candidate who best reflects their interests, and who, in their opinion, can most effectively lead the nation. When the president is elected, voters invest their trust in the candidate. It is this trust that adds to the strength of the presidential pardon. If the president is selected to represent the will of the people and he exercises his pardon, wouldn’t that mean the pardon would also have the direct support of the people?
Regardless of its justice, the pardon is rarely used and thus poses little threat to the concentration of power in the U.S. government. Arguably its most famous application was in 1974, when newly installed President Gerald Ford “gave absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States.” This pardon undoubtedly angered many American citizens who felt there was a need for retribution after the Watergate Scandal. However, almost every other president has exercised their presidential pardon at least once with little or no resistance. Why is that? Because the president’s clemency powers are almost always exercised for just causes.
In President Barack Obama’s case, recently pardoned crimes included mutilating coins, counterfeiting, and adultery. In all of the cases, Obama was “moved by the strength of the applicants’ post–conviction efforts at atonement, as well as their superior citizenship and individual achievements in the years since their convictions.” In short, Obama isn’t just tossing out presidential pardons like candy. According to the Justice Department, Obama has received 551 pardon petitions during his almost two years in office. The president has outright denied 131 of those petitions, while 265 cases were closed without his input. The remaining 155 petitions have received presidential pardons.
Criminals are rarely pardoned for serious offenses such as multiple murders, conspiracy against the government or treason. It would almost never be in the president’s best interest to pardon such criminals, as the public outcry against the action would lead to far worse political ramifications than the pardon is worth.
Opponents also argue that such a power is easily abused and that the president could pardon individuals who do not deserve to be free from their trials. They say, for example, that a president might pardon a family member or friend. But imagine for an instant the public outcry that would result if President Obama were to pardon his mother for a crime she had recently committed. The political right would seize the story like a starving wolf seizing a piece of raw meat and immediately forward the details to every e-mail account in America. Additionally, the president’s approval ratings would plummet even lower than they already have. Such a pardon could even be grounds for impeachment of which, thankfully, the Constitution would prevent the president from pardoning himself.