Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Pardon me

President George Bush commuted the 30-month sentence of Former Vice President Dick Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted in March on federal charges of perjury, obstruction of justice, and lying to investigators. Presidential commutations are final, not subject to review by court or Congress.

Reaction was swift. In general, Democrats considered the action an affront to justice, while Republicans said it was the right thing to do. Just what are the statistics for clemency – that is, commutations, sentence reductions, and pardons – by President? And did George Washington pardon anyone?

Not everyone wants a pardon: Presidential pardons may be refused – and have been. In 1915 the city editor of the New York Herald Tribune refused to divulge his sources, received and refused a pardon from President Wilson, and was convicted of contempt. But Presidential commutations may not be refused. In 1927 an inmate named Vuco Perovich was sentenced to death but received a Presidential commutation to life. Perovich sued to overturn the commutation but lost - and lived.

Since 1900, FDR leads the pack with 3,687 clemency actions. In contrast, Bush has granted clemency fewer times – 113 – than any president in history except Zachary Taylor, John Adams, George Washington, James Garfield, William Harrison, and, this is interesting, his dad, with 77.

One of the most interesting pardons was the one George Washington gave to the Whiskey Rebels, who protested an excise tax on liquor and distilled spirits – imposed to bring down the national debt – by organizing a rebellion with 13,000 militia – about the size of the Revolutionary army – against the new American government in 1794. Twenty of the rebels were pardoned on Washington’s last day in office.

But the record for most pardons in a day goes to the only President to have received a Presidential pardon: Richard Nixon, who pardoned 204 criminals on December 20, 1972. Do we see a potentially new Presidential pardon pattern? Or could it just be that justice may now be obstructing obstruction of justice.

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