Obama’s Quality of Mercy: Strained

President Obama finally pardoned somebody who wasn’t a turkey last week, but not before he became slowest Democratic president in U.S. history to use Article II of the Constitution to right a judicial wrong or just exercise his power to demonstrate  the ethical virtue of mercy. His choices for pardons could not have been more tepid, however, prompting a withering blog post by Prof. P.S. Ruckman, who champions the pardon power, and keeps meticulous score.

Ruckman had predicted that Obama would end the pardon drought as soon as December hit, noting that recent presidents used the Christmas holidays as a convenient pardon prop. But he is outraged at the small number of pardons, writing,

“Can President Obama say “no?” Yes, he can! To date, he has received 3,389 new petitions for federal executive clemency. At the beginning of fiscal year 2010, there were 4,716 petitions pending. He has denied 1,288 petitions and an additional 842 have been ‘closed without presidential action.'”

Worse, in Ruckman’s view (and mine is well) is the fact that the paltry nine pardons Obama did grant are almost laughably trivial, sending a clear signal that avoiding political controversy, not genuine mercy, was the over-riding factor in determining whose petition was granted. Ruckman writes, his keyboard sticky with contempt and sarcasm:

Poor 73-year old Russel Dixon … his liquor law violation was more than 50 years ago (that is to say, before President Obama was even born)! Dixon says he just wanted to clear his name before he died! James Banks, now 66-years-old, was only 27 when he got caught stealing less than $100 worth of plywood and nails from a construction site. Yes, you read that right! The horror! Ronald Foster, now 65-years old, committed his crime when he was an 18-year-old Marine serving in Vietnam. But Foster clearly had no business being eager for mercy, given the utterly shocking, heinous nature of his crime (whittling the edges of coins so as to trick vending machines). Unspeakable! Thus, the determination on his clemency application, filed in 2008, absolutely required a good 32 months of deliberation…. Yep, one thing is for certain: this group of kids (including 85-year-old Laurens Dorsey and Edgar Kranz, an Air Force retiree) will think twice before ever violating the law again! As Samuel T. Morison (a former staff attorney in the Office of the Pardon Attorney, Department of Justice) has pointed out, increasingly pardons are granted to people who need (or can actually benefit from) them the very least…

Six out of the nine pardons were granted to individuals whose violations were, even at the time they were committed, considered so minor that they were not even given prison time – or even so much as a jail sentence. Instead, they were merely placed on probation. Imagine the vast amounts of precious political capital President Obama has spent in making such risky decisions! How can he possibly expect to win in 2012?”

Indeed, the list of pardons looks like they were determined by coin flip after the really serious and controversial cases had been removed from consideration:

  • James Bernard Banks (1972) UT, illegal possession of government property (2 years probation)
  • Russell James Dixon (1960) GA, liquor violations (2 years probation)
  • Laurens Dorsey (1998) NY, false statements (5 years probation, restitution)
  • Ronald Lee Foster (1963) NC, coin mutilation (1 year probation. fine)
  • Timothy James Gallagher (1982) AZ, cocaine (3 years probation)
  • Roxanne Kay Hettinger (1986) IA, cocaine (30 days, 3 years probation)
  • Edgar Leopold Kranz, Jr. (1994) military (24 months)
  • Floretta Leavy (1984) IL, cocaine/marijuana (1 year and 1 day)
  • Scoey Lathaniel Morris (1999) TX, counterfeiting (3 years probation, fine)

President Obama has frequently complained that political opposition has kept him from doing all the humane, caring, fair things that he believes the United States should do for ordinary people in need. Yet he has adamantly refused to put to good use a unique power that he can wield without any interference whatsoever, and when he finally did choose to use it, it was in an expedient and perfunctory way. The Reason blog puts this in harsher terms:

“It’s worth noting that the questionable powers he guards zealously allow him to detain, torture, and kill, while the power he’s eschewing bestows mercy or, when used properly (and it usually isn’t), acknowledges the flaws in the federal government’s criminal justice system and the people victimized by them.”

Why is Obama shrugging away his pardon power? It could be lack of courage, lack of integrity, lack of caring, or lack of initiative. Whatever the explanation, December’s nine pardons don’t reflect any better on the President’s character than the previous 682 days without mercy.

7 thoughts on “Obama’s Quality of Mercy: Strained

  1. Pardon my French, but what the hell is the point of pardoning someone who’s already free? Yeah, they clear their name, but unless they were completely innocent and they went to jail for a long time, I wouldn’t even waste the President’s time with asking for it. Isn’t it best suited for people who are currently incarcerated wrongly?

  2. So, these 9 people were wrongly convicted? I mean, that’s the only reason you would give a pardon to someone who has already serve their sentence, right?

    Or is it that these individuals, even though being fully reformed by their served sentence, can’t find work because they have to disclose their convictions on job applications?

    If that’s the purpose of the presidential pardon, to aid job-seeker’s applications process, couldn’t there be a better solution like a 20-year time-out for disclosing convictions on applications rather than having the president pardon you?

    • No, I see nothing to suggest they were wrongly convicted, though there are many, many cases, some involving life sentences, where the verdict was dubious at best. The pardon just says, “You’re forgiven” and the stain is gone. Obviously pardoning 80 year old men doesn’t do much for they’re job prospects. These seem to be cases where the punishment seems harsh or—hell, I have NO idea who these 9 were selected out. It looks like someone threw a file down the stairs. Do you realize that there’s a staff to review these things…and THIS is what it came up with after two years? Talk about a candidate for budget cuts….

      • Here’s my thing, Jack — you know that I’m an Obama supporter, but what I am NOT is a supporter of his choices for staff and advisers. What a bunch of yahoos! My disillusionment with My President — and I did consider him “My” President — is growing, and it really depresses me. I had such high hopes for him. I just can’t tell if the problem is squarely with him or if, as I’ve said, he just has a bunch of bumbling idiots and/or people with their own narrow (and seemingly evil) agendas. Or both.

        • I share your pain—I really do. Unlike Rush, I don’t want to see any President fail.

          At a certain point, the leader who listens to bad advisors has to be fully accountable. If you don’t agree with advisors, don’t follow their advice. If they keep giving you bad advice, get new ones. For people to keep saying “he’s so smart, but he has dumb advisors” just can’t go on. Smart leaders don’t HAVE dumb advisors….at least not for long.

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