How Do Presidential Pardons Work?

Why Does the President Have the Power to Pardon Convicts?

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, of the Constitution says the President “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which is part of the Justice Department, has handled such matters for the President since 1893. Presidential pardons only extend to federal crimes, not civil cases or non-federal cases.

The basis of the presidential pardon can be found in the royal Prerogative of English Kings! It was Alexander Hamilton who lobbied to include this power in the Constitution.

Image Source: vox.com

Image Source: vox.com

Are There Different Types of Pardons?

When a person is convicted of a felony, he loses various civil liberties — the right to vote, serve on a jury, or own a firearm. A full pardon restores all these rights. It’s as if the crime never took place.

In a conditional pardon, a president may issue a pardon in exchange for something in return. For example, President Richard Nixon gave Jimmy Hoffa a conditional pardon in exchange for Hoffa’s pledge to never again take part in labor organization.

A president can also grant a remission releasing a person from a legal obligation. This applies only to fines levied against an individual as the result of a federal case.

A commutation shortens or abolishes the sentence, but leaves intact the civil disability. Commutations are fairly rare.

A respite is a short-term action — lasting only a month or two — and allows the president to delay a sentence or execution. Usually, the purpose of a respite is to buy time to allow further consideration of a pardon petition.

Which Presidents Issued the Most Pardons?

This table shows the number of pardons issued by each President since George Washington (he issued 16). The most pardons were issued by these Presidents:

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933 to 1945)          3,687 [Note that FDR served as President for 12 years, which explains the high number of pardons.]

Woodrow Wilson (1913 to 1921)                   2,480

Harry Truman (1945 to 1953)                       2,044

From President Nixon to Obama, these were the number of pardons issued:

Richard Nixon (1969 to 1974)                      926

Gerald Ford (1974 to 1977)                           409

Jimmy Carter (1977 to 1981)                        566

Ronald Reagan (1981 to 1989)                     406

George H.W. Bush (1989 to 1993)               77

Bill Clinton (1993 to 2001)                            456

George W. Bush (2001 to 2009)                  176

Barack Obama (2009 to 2017)                     64

Some of the more famous people who received presidential pardons include: George Steinbrenner, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Hoffa, Brigham Young, Patty Hearst. President Abraham Lincoln pardoned Arthur O’Bryan, the Washington D.C. man after he was convicted of attempted bestiality. The man was released because Lincoln felt the man had led an otherwise exemplary life, and because the man had been drunk at the time of the offense.

Can Presidential Pardons Be Undone?

The president isn’t required to explain or justify a pardon to anyone. The power to pardon cannot be reviewed or overturned by any of the other branches of government. There is basically no way to block a presidential pardon.

While pardons cannot be undone, the threat of impeachment might deter a president. Even former presidents can be impeached by simple majority votes in the House of Representatives and Senate. This second method of impeachment results in the former president being banned from holding any office again.

What Stops A President from Just Pardoning All His Cronies?

Congress has a particular incentive to curb the President’s power of pardon when it is investigating the President or his administration. Although a president can grant pardons to members of his Administration who refuse to testify before Congress, the Supreme Court has held that Congress’s power to hold its witnesses in contempt lies outside the president’s pardoning power. This means that witnesses hauled before Congress can be jailed in contempt for refusing to testify, and cannot be rescued by a presidential pardon. Or, prosecutors can wait until a president is out of office and then prosecute his cronies.

What do you think? Is the presidential pardoning power abused or too strong? Should it be limited in some way?

22 comments on “How Do Presidential Pardons Work?

  1. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
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    Steven Anderson on

    Does the pardon have to be for a specific crime? As if the pardon is granted just in case the person commits a crime. President Trump is apparently granting pardons to people that have not even been charged with a crime. Is that legal and does he have to say specifically what the crime is they are being pardoned for?

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  3. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Ian Kavanagh on

    Presidential Pardons are a complete farce! A joke of the worst kind, an extra layer of protection by the already untouchable unaccountable blatantly corrupt cronies of dodgy dirty deal dead beats, and that goes for All former/future presidents not just the soon to be gone shouty pouty crude dude with the tangerine completion & mystery-hair

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  4. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Linda Morris on

    As of tonight, the pardon power of the president is being abused. No president should have the right to pardon his partners in crime, or as reward for the silence of witnesses.

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  5. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Renee Westa-Lusk on

    I think the presidential pardoning power is being abused and misused and should either be abolished or restricted so severely it prohibits another President from ever encouraging their workers, colleagues, cronies, family members, elected officials, acquaintances from ever receiving a pardon for any crimes they may have committed to support the President’s election, re-election, or administration to do what the President wanted done. I see that all the honest Americans who either abide by the law or make mistakes committing criminal acts ending up paying severely for their crimes are treated like a double standard. Who is out their to give those Americans who need a pardon for lot less criminal act than was committed by this White Houses’s Administration? Why aren’t pardons only reserved for persons unjustly convicted of crimes they never committed OR for those who have been given heinously long unjust sentences for the same crimes committed by white people who got off with a much lighter sentence? Why have a legal justice system when a President gives out bogus pardons and makex a mockery of our legal justice system? Why can’t the “Johnny Q” public lie to the FBI because many of the people President Trump pardoned lied to the FBI? Why have police departments, why have investigators, why have an FBI, why have a court system, why have investigators, detectives, why have any of this if you have a President who destroys our whole morality on what is right and what is wrong and crushes our legal justice system?

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  6. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Barbara Morton on

    There should be a way to stop a pardon or remove a pardon from a person that is guilty of a felon. The president is abusing his power because he knows every person he is pardoning is guilty including himself. There should be stronger language before a person is pardoned, they must be proven that they are not guilty for the crime they supposedly committed.

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  7. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    John Ruacho on

    The presidential pardon is abused. For a man to be able to allow others to lie for him unconstitutionally and tell them he will pardon them if they do so, it is not what our for fathers had intended for the use of pardons.

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  8. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Sheila Welkenbach on

    I think the President pardoning power is abused by this President. I believe this power should be limited in power. I believe that there should be a panel to oversee the process.

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  9. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Duck panico on

    In no cases should a president be able to pardon a murderer as Trump has done . Loose them upon an “unprotected public “with no supervision ,as Trump has done . They are likely to murder again and it will be Trump’s fault !

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  10. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Betty on

    A president should not be able to pardon himself and should held accountable for his action or crimes that he had(has) committed in the eyes of the law. He should not be allowed to go free.

    Reply
  11. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Arthur L McDaniel on

    The presidential pardoning power is a blatant disregard for the very laws that are passed by the Congress. There’s no longer a reason to fear being a law breaker. This is precisely the reason there are so many harden criminals in high places, who doesn’t fear prosecution. According to the bible book of Romans chapter 13 verses 1 through 14, all laws, both Heaven and Earthly, are inspired by God Almighty. God didn’t give us the authority to disregard our laws, and allow me into walk as criminals. God it’s not lenient. We have all got to answer for our actions, either here or the hereafter. The only escape from punishment, is to walk in love in the first place. As we are all aware, God is love. And love won’t allow us to misbehave. According to the Bible book of 2nd Corinthians chapter 5 verse 21, Christ has paved the way for us to walk in His love, as believers in the fact, that He died on the cross and was raised from the dead, to make way for us to walk in His love. I love you all and God bless!

    Reply
  12. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Christine Golden on

    Trump has brought to light several areas of Constitutional law that need amended. Pardons being one. How can we allow a President to commit high crimes against the country up until the day he/she leaves office and pardons themselves?

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  13. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
  14. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Chris Nolan on

    If a President is impeached in Congress, leaves office and is subsequently convicted in the Senate, does that invalidate a self pardon?

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  15. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
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    Dan A Joel on

    Is it your opinion that a president who has been impeached by the House of Representatives loses his power to pardon –based on the plain & unambiguous language of Article !! Sec.3? If this is what you mean (above), hasn’t Trump LOST his pardon power after he had been impeached by the House in 2020? In that case, no one pardoned by him has in fact been pardoned etc. if it was issued after December 2020.

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  17. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Kim Schenz on

    I have heard some conflicting information regarding Presidential pardons and would love a clarification. Can the President pardon someone before they have been convicted? I have heard yes he can and could, therefore, pre-pardon his children and I have heard no, he can’t pardon someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime.

    Thank you.

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  18. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Robert on

    The pardoning power is definitely too strong and is abused!
    It needs to be constrained by an independent body or the Supreme Court.
    It should never be used to pardon ahead of committing a crime or if the president is aware of or instigated a crime.

    Reply
  19. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
  20. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Barbara on

    I definitely think there needs to be reform of the Presidential pardon system. I think we have witnessed the abuse of that power. That is a real way to have people commit crimes for the President and then give them a free pass following. You have a questionable person in office who does not even consult the Judiciary about the choices, not smart for maintenance of our Democracy.

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  21. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
  22. Avatar for Mary Mock mmock
    Penny Jolly on

    Your suggestion here that impeachment by a simple majority (of the House) is true, but I believe that does NOT result in the President being banned from future office, as we have just witnessed. Instead, the Senate must convict by a 2/3 majority, and then I believe there is a separate vote by the Senate (a simple majority) to ban the President from future office.

    Reply

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