Friday, January 3, 2014
You can read the piece in its entirety here.
Over a thousand "comments" were posted within 24 hours, many - if not most - of them wholly unrelated to the piece. But the Editor mixed it up with some of the commentary and found many of the responses indicative.
Although the piece focused primarily on pardons (as opposed to commutations of sentence), many readers simply could not resist confusing the two and expressing fear/concern that criminals were being tossed from prisons and into the streets. This, despite the fact that the second to the last paragraph explained - very clearly - what pardons do and do not do.
A second common theme in the comments (obviously from Obama supporters), was that, if Obama granted pardons, there would be complaining about that. Of course, everyone recognizes that politicians will always have supporters and detractors, but - besides shedding no real light on anything - that really misses one of the key points of the editorial. The President is getting criticized by the "right" and the "left." Increasingly, clemency is not an ideological issue. The days of labeling to smear - on this front - are fast fading.
Many comments were generally high on the witty / bumper sticker line "can't do the time? don't do the crime" - which really is an outstanding rule of thumb for the government and the criminal justice system ... no really! ... but only if 1) judges are perfect 2) juries are perfect 3) prosecutors are perfect 4) legislatures are perfect 5) laws are perfectly composed 6) we are all comfortable with the idea that no one ever changes, much less rehabilitates and, therefore, any and all crimes should be punished eternally and 7) and we are just fine with continuous tax increases to support the prison system and the effects of its efforts - when prisoners leave. Otherwise, the line is very silly.
Finally, several comments suggested the pardon power should be used very rarely, and only when a person is found to be innocent, after conviction. This is certainly one policy option, and maybe even one that some governors adopt implicitly. But it must be recognized that no such limitation exists in the Constitution, and certainly no president has ever employed such a rule. Washington, Adams and Jefferson certainly didn't. Alexander Hamliton's call for "easy access" to mercy (in the Federalist Papers) was, indeed, particularly meant for those who were "unfortunately" guilty, but guilty nonetheless. It is clear that the Founding Fathers expected the president to be an active part of the pursuit of justice, not a neutral by-stander, waiting for universally condemned error.
Presidents nominate federal judges. They nominate federal prosecutors as well as the U.S. attorney general. Presidents support and sign / oppose and veto criminal laws passed by Congress. And they make critical decisions about which criminal laws to enforce, what style will be employed in their enforcement and what degree of enthusiasm / rigor will follow Presidents are part of the judicial process. The pardon power is nothing more than still yet another example of that participation. That is the way it was meant to be.