In the final hours of his tenure, President Bush commuted the sentences of Jose Alonso Compean and Ignacio “Nacho” Ramos, the former Border Patrol agents who were serving time for shooting a drug smuggler. This action draws attention to the presidential pardon power — a matter of some interest to this blog, since RN received the 20th century’s most famous pardon.
The power comes from Article 2, section 2 of the Constitution, which enables the president to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” There is practically no check on this power. Neither Congress nor the courts can block or revoke a pardon. The only deterrent to abuse is the possibility of impeachment, which has little force in the final days of a presidency.

Most requests for a pardon go through the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. In making recommendations, the office considers several criteria:

  • Post-conviction conduct, character, and reputation.
  • Seriousness and relative recency of the offense.
  • Acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and atonement.
  • Need for relief.
  • Official recommendations and reports.

Because the waiting list is very long and the success rate is low, people sometimes make end-runs around the process and appeal to the White House directly. That’s what fugitive billionaire Marc Rich did in the last days of the Clinton administration. At the time, Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder actually encouraged Rich’s attorney to take this route, since Justice Department attorneys opposed a pardon.

And now Mr. Holder awaits confirmation as Attorney General.