Friday, May 29, 2009

Obama's Race to the Bottom

132 days into his administration Barack Obama continues to distinguish himself as one of the slowest presidents in history when it comes to the use of federal executive clemency. With the number of clemency applications soaring, prison populations booming and increased concern over issues such as mandatory minimum sentences, the Obama Department of Justice cannot account for a single pardon or commutation of sentence. In the Republic's 220 years, only seven administrations have been slower. Among modern presidents, Obama is in an even smaller class - with Eisenhower (R), Nixon (R), George H.W. Bush (R), George W. Bush (R) and Bill Clinton (D). Obama will pass Eisenhower in just a couple of months. See chart here.

Too much on the plate? Hard to imagine Lincoln, Wilson and FDR had it easy. Not to mention they didn't have nearly as many career employees in the federal bureacracy to assist them. Remember, Obama is conspicuously proud of his supposed ability to "do more than one thing at a time."

Other priorities? During the campaign, Obama didn't mind pushing social security, health care, the economy and the deficit aside to discuss the pardon power. He was critical of Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence, issuing a formal statement and commenting on the matter regularly in stump speeches. During the presidential debates, he was critical of Bill Clinton's use of pardons. Obama also said, through a spokesman, that he would not grant a pardon to former fundraiser and associate Tony Rezko.

Signs there would probably be neither hope nor change? Obama selected Eric Holder as U.S. Attorney General. Holder showed little interest in the pardon power as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration and, when he did show interest, the results were FALN and Marc Rich. In addition, Obama showed little interest / initiative when he simply retained the U.S. Pardon Attorney from the Bush administration. More troubling is the fact that the current Pardon Attorney was appointed by George W. Bush's to replace the former Pardon Attorney in the wake of a scandal.

What to expect? At this point, there is really very little reason to expect anything different from Obama. Pardons and commutations will come, eventually. Indeed, for all we know, Mr. Obama may wind up granting more pardons than any president in history. But the fact remains that the longer he waits to exercise the pardon power, the more of an afterthought it will appear to be. And, if he decides to spit out pardons in the month of December and in the last year of the term, clemency will continue to be viewed as a "gift," especially for partisan supporters, cronies and those with access to the White House in the chaotic last days of an administration.


Soronel Haetir said...

I just don't see much for Obama to gain by issuing pardons. By not acting he manages to avoid far more criticism than is being generated by his inaction. Modern presidents seem to have learned the lesson that pardons and commutations are a beast that can easily turn around and bite back.

I'm sure it must be frusterating for someone with a narrow focus interest of this nature but I see the lack of pardons explained much easier by a political calculation much more than anything else.

P.S. Ruckman, Jr. said...


Thanks for your comment. There is much about it that may seem reasonable enough or intuitive. But I wonder if I could invite you adjust your perceptions.

First, as far as the topic discussed in this entry is concerned (number of days to the first pardon), it appears that modern presidents such as Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter and Reagan did not learn any "lesson" at all. They simply followed the well-worn path of almost every president before them.

Second, when a president ignores thousands of applications and hundred of positive recommendations from the Department of Justice in order to pardon his own brother and is criticized for it, it hardly seems correct to say that the lesson is that pardons can "easily turn around and bite back." It would seem more appropriate to say that the "lesson" is that serious lapses in judgement rarely go unnoticed at this level of government.

Third, despite the number of the "beasts" that you think may be out there, the fact of the matter is that George Bush pardoned quite a few people and you and I have never heard of 99.9 percent of them. The same would be true of the pardons that came from every other modern president. Thus, the more resonable "lesson" to learn would be that the regular systematic of use of pardons tends to fend off beasts.

Fourth, political calculations aside, jurisprudential thought and basic notions of justice have long held that life-sentences and life-time punishments are simply not appropriate for EVERY crime. Yet, when we let thousands of pardon applications pile up, summarily dismiss a large percentage of them, and keep applicants waiting for years, we are simply saying that we are OK with punishments not fitting crimes. It may be good math (or political calculation). But it is bad justice. Best,

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