General Question

TheKitchenSink's avatar

Does the President of the United States of America have limitations on his power to pardon?

Asked by TheKitchenSink (433 points ) November 30th, 2008

I was thinking, could he/she pardon everybody in the country at once, indiscriminately? Are there safeguards against that? Can it be repealed? Would it be too late anyway?

EDIT: Excluding the power to pardon himself, I mean. Thanks for reminding me, sferik.

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23 Answers

sferik's avatar

Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution states:
“The President…shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

That is, the only limit of the presidential pardon power is that he cannot pardon himself (or his Vice President).

TheKitchenSink's avatar

Yeah, well, I knew that much. I should have clarified, I guess. Sorry.

jholler's avatar

Then what exactly is your question?

TheKitchenSink's avatar

I outlined the rest of it in the description. Is that his ONLY limitation? Is it theoretically possible for the president to pardon everyone in the country at once, and there’s nothing the country could do other than to convict/impeach said president?

EDIT: Actually he said only in his description I must have skipped. I didn’t know “only.” My bad. But still, is my hypothetical situation possible?

jholler's avatar

Yes, it’s theoretically possible, but no impeachment would occur, as no crime would be broken. Huge abuse of power, yes, but no crime, since presidential pardoning power is absolute.

sferik's avatar

Yep. The President can pardon as many people as he wants and the Congress and courts have no Constitutional recourse other than impeachment.

I suspect the authors of the constitution expected the scope of federal crimes to be much smaller than it is today.

TheKitchenSink's avatar

Awesome. I suppose I might want to create a separate topic, but do you by any chance know exactly how pardoning works? Is there paperwork the president has to do? Can he/she only pardon one person at a time? Basically what I ask is if the president can just say “everyone’s pardoned!” and it would be so. I would think it would be one at a time at the very least, but what do I know.

jholler's avatar

Ok, impeachment could occur, since that’s only an accusation, but he couldn’t be convicted of a crime for it.

lefteh's avatar

Just a minor correction to sferik’s great explanation: federal impeachments cover more than just the president and vice president. The Constitution states that “The President, Vice President, and all other civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Hence, any federal officer can be impeached, and this impeachment cannot be pardoned by the president. These officers include federal judges, representatives, senators, etc.

For more info, see the Office of the Pardon Attorney.

sferik's avatar

I stand corrected.

finkelitis's avatar

So essentially the president (or governor, statewise) is a check on the judiciary, but they can’t trump the legislature when they impeach anyone. And the legislature’s ability to impeach is pretty much a check on the executive.

galileogirl's avatar

Dubya has already started pardoning people, so we can’t expect anything in the way of justice in 2009. There will be no impeachment because that would be for the purpose of removal from office and that will already have happened.

The only think we can hope for is LOTS of committees investigating every unconstitutional and/or sleazy action over the last 8 years. While the scumbags may be pardoned for their actions, they will either have to appear and tell the truth or spend time and money dealing with contempt of Congress or perjury charges.

Bigwigs always wiggle out of criminal charges anyway. They end up in jail for perjury or go bankrupt trying to avoid it.

Another option would be a truth commission where they would have to admit what they have done. That may be the only way to make this country admit what we have allowed to go on and to make sure these guys can’t try to rewrite history.

laureth's avatar

The “pardon” is the only unchecked presidential power. The Founders were not keen on the idea of a strong executive branch.

applegate's avatar

We all have limitations. Should obama pardon a man sentenced
to death for raping and dismembering a family of twelve,
he would face all kinds of social retribution no matter
what his reasonings would be.

jholler's avatar

Bill pardoned 395 people while in office, 140 on his last day alone. Bush has pardoned 171.

TheKitchenSink's avatar

Bush hasn’t had his last day yet.

jholler's avatar

I know this, I was responding to galileogirl’s statement that “Dubya has already started pardoning people, so we can’t expect anything in the way of justice in 2009”. She seemed to be implying that pardoning people before the last day in office was somehow sneaky or dishonest.

TheKitchenSink's avatar

Fair enough. I don’t really see why Bill Clinton was involved, or why that’s all that relevant as a counterpoint, but okay.

jholler's avatar

As a comparison, I used a president most of the demographic I see on this site consider a great one (at least I think they do.) Also the most recent comparison.

galileogirl's avatar

Let me chime in on this. I don’t think these politically based pardons are “sneaky” I know they are legal but when they are done to cover up the truth they are immoral and unethical no matter who does it. Ford said he pardoned Nixon so “the tranquility of the nation would not be lost”

If we had kept the enquiry alive and held Nixon to account and we learned how wrong we were to trust a faithless president, later presidents would be scrutinized more carefully.

It is only common sense that allowing wrongdoers evade the consequences of their actions encourages more wrongdoing.

This is not a matter of partisanship, it is a matter of justice.

jholler's avatar

Then you’re recommending that someone needs to start the amendment process and get rid of that executive power? As it stands, most presidential pardons are granted after the convicted’s sentences have been served, and stand merely to wipe the record clean, and restore rights lost due to a felony conviction. (voting, firearms possession, etc.) They are usually not given to get someone out of serving their sentence. It can, and has been a very controversial issue, and to answer the original question a little more clearly, yes, sweeping pardons can be made.

“Many pardons have been controversial; critics argue that pardons have been used more often for the sake of political expediency than to correct judicial error. One of the more famous recent pardons was granted by President Gerald Ford to former President Richard Nixon on September 8, 1974, for official misconduct which gave rise to the Watergate scandal. Polls showed a majority of Americans disapproved of the pardon and Ford’s public-approval ratings tumbled afterward. Other controversial uses of the pardon power include Andrew Johnson’s sweeping pardons of thousands of former Confederate officials and military personnel after the American Civil War, Jimmy Carter’s grant of amnesty to Vietnam-era draft evaders, George H. W. Bush’s pardons of 75 people, including six Reagan administration officials accused and/or convicted in connection with the Iran-Contra affair, Bill Clinton’s pardons of convicted FALN terrorists and 140 people on his last day in office – including billionaire fugitive Marc Rich, and George W. Bush’s commutation of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s prison term.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pardon

Mizuki's avatar

@—galileogirl——what is this term “justice” of which you speak. In my time studying humans since my spaceship landed, I have heard about “justice”, but not seen it. Is justice when Don Rumsfeld order’s torture of prisioners and then Lynsay England goes to jail? Is this what you humans call “justice”?

galileogirl's avatar

We won’t see justice regarding anything to do with the Iraq war, you can’t bring thousands of dead and restore 100’s of thousanda to full physical and mental health, but we can make the people responsible.

To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I may not have a shorthand description of justice, but I know it when I see it.

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