Presidential Pardons
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The Process of the Presidential Pardon
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The U.S. Constitution offers no guidance on how the process of a presidential pardon should be carried out; however, a standard system has been created over time to deal with the process of presidential pardons. But while this system is almost always followed, the president is under no legal obligation to follow it. In fact, the president is free to completely disregard the system. Let’s take a closer look at this system.

From George Washington to 1865, presidents generally handled the pardon process on their own. As the office of the president grew, in 1865 the office of Pardon Clerk was set up to take over the pardon process to relieve the president of the administrative work. In 1893, the office of the Attorney in Charge of Pardons took over the functions and responsibilities of the Pardon Clerk. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Justice took over the task of administering the pardon process through its Office of the Pardon Attorney.

Today, the Office of the Pardon Attorney handles all petitions for presidential pardons. There is one person who acts as the Pardon Attorney with a staff of 14 or so junior attorneys. Title 28 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Sections 1.1-1.10, set forth the general guidelines for how a person can petition for a presidential pardon.

With that background in mind, let’s take a look at the actual pardon process.

The Pardon Process

The petitioner, i.e. person seeking the pardon, must:
  • Submit a pardon petition to the Office of the Pardon Attorney for federal criminal convictions only.
  • Generally wait 5 years after conviction or the end of jail before he or she can be eligible for a pardon.
  • State the reason for seeking a pardon to the Office of Pardon Attorney.
  • Provide thorough background information to Office of Pardon Attorney
    • NOTE: Pardons for military offenses must be sent directly to the secretary of the military department that had original jurisdiction in the individual’s case. For example, if a soldier in the Army was court-martialed for a particular offense, and wanted a presidential pardon, that soldier would have to submit his or her application to the Secretary of the Army.
      • A presidential pardon will not change the character of the military discharge. So, for example, if a member of the Navy receives a dishonorable discharge, a presidential pardon of that Navy member will not eliminate the dishonorable discharge.
  • Provide character references to the Office of Pardon Attorney.
  • Await the decision of the president.
    • REMEMBER: As stated earlier, pardons do not erase or expunge a person’s record or conviction. Therefore, a person who receives a presidential pardon would still have to disclose all their convictions where such information is required (e.g. applying for a new job). Also, states are usually free to impose civil disabilities on the person, like the loss of the right to vote and/or hold state public office.
  • No appeals allowed.
    • No hearing is held on the pardon petition, and the president’s decision is final without any grounds for appeal.
    • Also, the information and reasoning upon which the president makes the decision is not available under the Freedom of Information Act. In other words, if the petitioner is denied his or her petition to be pardoned, the petitioner cannot ask for the information used to make the decision.
    • The petitioner must wait at least 2 years from the date of the denial to submit another pardon petition.
Remember that the president is free to disregard everything we just stated (because the pardon power is nearly unlimited) – but that rarely happens. Presidents generally follow the above process and let the Office of the Pardon Attorney do their work.

Next, let’s explore some high-profile pardons and reprieves.