We Beg His Pardon

How the president forgives us our trespasses.

President Bush recently granted a new batch of pardons. Were any Texans on the list? On December 21 the president pardoned sixteen people for crimes ranging from bootlegging to conspiracy to defraud the United States. Only one person was from Texas, a San Antonio home inspector named Mark Eberwine who had been convicted of obstructing the assessment of taxes and making false statements to a grand jury in 1985. Bush also commuted the sentence of an Iowa man who had been convicted on drug charges.

What’s the difference between a pardon and a commutation? Both are forms of executive clemency. A pardon essentially equals forgiveness for one’s crime, and it reinstates certain rights that were lost as a result of the conviction, like owning a firearm. It’s worth noting that a pardon doesn’t erase the crime; it only forgives it. A commutation, on the other hand, involves the reduction of an existing sentence. All of the charges, of course, relate to federal crimes; the president can’t pardon someone convicted in a state court. The only other limit on the power is that a president cannot pardon someone who has been impeached.

So what gives the president the right to pardon? That famous document known as the Constitution, specifically Article II, Section 2. As with many issues, the framers were vague on the specifics of the process—they spent only twenty words on the topic and never once mentioned a Thanksgiving turkey. A president can offer clemency at any time of the year, and, as in the case of Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon Richard Nixon, he can do so at his discretion. (The Nixon pardon shows another aspect of this power: to grant clemency for crimes that might have been committed, even if the person hasn’t been charged.) However, most pardons follow a formal process that is managed by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, which is part of the Department of Justice.

How does the process work? You are eligible to apply for a pardon five years after your release from prison. (If you didn’t serve time, the waiting period begins on the day of sentencing.) Then the first step is to fill out an application, which you can find at usdoj.gov/pardon. As one might imagine, you have to follow a lot of rules; your letter, for example, must be addressed to the president of the United States. The Office of the Pardon Attorney considers the following factors when weighing a request: your behavior after your conviction and your contributions to society, the seriousness of your crime, your acceptance of responsibility, the amount of time that has passed since the crime, and any specific relief the pardon would provide you, such as the ability to gain employment.

What happens next? Attorneys pore over the materials, and FBI agents interview the references listed on your application (they also interview people the references mention, so the number of folks involved increases during the course of the investigation). The local United States attorney can play a role by offering insights into your case. When the investigation is completed, the Office of the Pardon Attorney forwards its recommendation to the president, who is free to make his decision.

How long does it take for a pardon to be approved? Each application varies according to its circumstances, but it’s not uncommon for the process to take more than two years.

Has every president issued a pardon? Only William Henry Harrison and James Garfield didn’t, and that’s because they didn’t live long enough to do so.

Which president has issued the most? If you had a good high school history teacher, you learned to answer any trivia question like that with “Franklin D. Roosevelt,” because he served longer than any other person. That would be correct here. FDR issued 3,687 clemency actions, 1,200 more than any other president. George Washington issued 16, the fewest. George W. Bush has had 113, and his father only 77.

Have any famous Texans been pardoned? Albert Alkek, the famed wildcatter and philanthropist who gave millions of dollars to the Texas Medical Center, in Houston, received a pardon from Ronald Reagan in 1987 for withholding information during an investigation of an oil price-fixing scheme. And just before Bill Clinton left office, in 2001, he pardoned former San Antonio mayor (and first-term Clinton cabinet member) Henry Cisneros for making false statements to the FBI nearly a decade earlier about cash payments to a former mistress.

Pardons are often controversial, so why do presidents bother? Pardons reflect the founders’ belief that government should show mercy. But the decisions do frequently create problems. For George H. W. Bush, it was his pardon of officials who were involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, including former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger. For Clinton, it was his pardon of Marc Rich, the financier whose ex-wife had made sizable contributions to the Democratic party. And for Josiah Bartlet, of course, it was his pardon of Toby Ziegler in the final episode of The West Wing for leaking the existence of a military space shuttle. Even in television, pardons can create high drama.

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