Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Researching the Presidential Pardon Power

Yesterday, the White House announced the presidential pardons of 15 individuals and sentence commutations for 5 others. While several involved the more typical clemency for non-violent drug offenders, other recipients of a pardon have generated headlines and controversy: two were connected to the Robert Mueller investigation that resulted in the impeachment of President Trump, three more were former GOP congressmen convicted of financial wrongdoing, and four were former Blackwater contractors convicted of killing 14 civilians in Iraq.

These latest acts of clemency have not yet been posted to the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney website, which includes information about petitions granted and denied during this presidential administration. It seems likely that the list may continue to grow during President Trump's remaining four weeks in office, as news sources have reported the president is considering preemptive pardons for his adult children and for close associates like Rudolph Giuliani. There have also been questions about the likelihood or legality of President Trump attempting a preemptive self-pardon to avoid future federal charges, which has never been tested in U.S. history.

Controversial acts of clemency are more common in the final weeks of a presidential administration, as the Congressional Research Service noted last month in its report, Presidential Transitions: Executive Clemency. Table 1 of that CRS report indicates that "since 1945, every President who completed his term of office, except President Lyndon B. Johnson, increased the rate at which he granted clemency in the final four months of his Administration, when compared with his previous months in office."

CRS also explored common questions related to presidential pardon power in a January 2020 report, Presidential Pardons: Overview and Selected Legal Issues. In this longer report, the research office for Congress explained the process for clemency, describes the different types of clemency available, and reviews the unclear legal status of self-pardons. The CRS treatise Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation (CONAN) provides more detail in the subchapter ArtII.S2.C1.3 Pardon Power.

Additional works on the presidential pardon power include Harold J. Krent's Presidential Powers (available to the Duke community as an ebook) and Jeffrey Crouch's The Presidential Pardon Power (available in print when Library Takeout Service resumes in January). For help locating additional materials about the presidential pardon power, be sure to Ask a Librarian.