As of last Wednesday, President Obama has pardoned more turkeys than human beings. He has continued the cutesy presidential tradition of bestowing a presidential pardon on a turkey destined for the Thanksgiving table each November of his two years in office, but is approaching a presidential record for the most days in office before finding a U.S. citizen equally worthy of mercy and forgiveness.
There are reasons for this, but no excuse….not from a President who loaded up his White House with Czars overseeing every conceivable White House priority (Why no Pardons Czar?), not from a President who has criticized the disparate, unfair and racially-tinged penalties for crack cocaine over the powdered variety favored by the white middle class, not when are so many worthy candidates for mercy, most with families whose lives could be infinitely enhanced by the ten seconds it takes for Barack Obama to sign his name.
Prof. P.S. Ruckman, who writes the Pardon Power Blog, is charting Obama’s appalling lack of pardons, and finds him on a historic course. “In eight days,” he writes, “President Obama will become the slowest Democratic president in history to exercise the pardon power. 664 days and counting! The average for all presidents is a mere 133 days.” Once he passes Clinton, the previous Democratic record-holder in this unfortunate category, only three Presidents will be ahead of him: Washington and Adams, our first two Presidents, who held office before that use of the pardon power had been fully institutionalized, and George W. Bush.
I wrote this about Bush’s stinginess with the pardon power in 2008:
“The reluctance or refusal of President Bush to issue pardons and commutations is strange, considering his willingness to test the limits of executive power in almost every other respect. The Founding Fathers were unapologetic about retaining this traditional kingly prerogative, because they recognized both the necessity of aggressive criminal prosecution and recognized that such a system would spawn its share of [unjust prosecutions]. Alexander Hamilton wrote, “The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”…[President Bush}] has granted only three petitions for commutation out of more than 5,000 received. That’s not being “tough on crime;” that is simply avoiding the opportunity to do good when one has the power to do it. The justice system, like any justice system, doesn’t always achieve a just result, and people can suffer terribly. A president, like a governor, has an ethical obligation to use the power of pardon and clemency. Doing the right thing in this case… requires neither sacrifice, political risk nor great effort for the President. It simply requires action. Inaction when action is necessary to do unequivocal good is no better than affirmatively unethical conduct.”
Ruckman goes further. Noting that recent Presidents have been skittish about using the pardon power because of the political firestorm that follows controversial ones like Marc Rich, Richard Nixon, Scooter Libby, Caspar Weinberger, he writes:
“…if the media were to inquire about the “typical” pardon half as much as they do the “controversial” ones, they would learn (and educate the American public to) the fact that the typical act of clemency does not spring anyone from prison or overturn the judgment of judges and juries at all! In fact, the typical act of clemency simply restores the civil rights of individuals who have served their time, waited a prescribed period before applying for clemency and have become productive members of society. Which is to say, their pardon was not really much of anything like a “gift.” They earned it. Believe it, dear reader, when a person gets a pardon out of the DOJ in the last 4 decades – it is earned!”
Ruckman predicts that Obama will break his mercy drought at Christmas ( December leads all months in the number of pardons), and finds this wrongheaded as well:
“…let us be the first to say, Mr. President, that dumping a handful of pardons at Christmas is a very sorry way to demonstrate that you (or the Department of Justice) has anything like a serious clemency program. Instead, it clearly sends the signal that the justice that can only be wrought by acts of mercy is a mere afterthought, inappropriate for the other 11 months of the year, when you see yourself as taking care of “important” stuff.
In addition, Christmastime pardons send a very wrongheaded – if not outright dangerous – signal to the American people that pardons are something like Christmas gifts, passed out during the holiday season, to those who actually may, or may not deserve them. Which is to say, it is no wonder the DOJ and OPA are so shy about pardons. The very timing of them implies their work re the assessment of pardon applications is a joke.”
Ruckman concludes with a stinging rebuke of the low priority President Obama has given to his office’s unique power to bestow mercy on deserving citizens, especially those he says he cares about most, the poor, the uneducated, and the unfortunate.
“Shame on you, Mr. President. To date, your clemency “policy” deserves nothing but scorn, slight regard and contempt. Like, most presidents before you, you should make pardons (and justice) a year-long concern, and insist that it be the year-long concern of the bureaucrats that are supposed to be working on applications all year long. When there is little evidence that they have more interest in clemency than you, they should be summarily removed, pronto.”
I can’t find any fault with Prof. Ruckman’s assessment. Not only is Obama’s path in the footsteps of his predecessor a dereliction of duty and failure of responsibility, it shows a disturbing deficit in the core ethical value of caring for others. This is a purely discretionary power that cannot be blocked by obstructionist Republicans. The President only has to have the interest, compassion and courage to use it to help fellow human beings.
So far, he has only been willing to bestow its benefits on turkeys, for a photo-op.