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Presidential Pardons

Presidential pardons, forgiveness or clemency are typical functions of the Executive office of the U.S. Government. In years past, there have been high-profile pardons, such as President Carter’s pardons for those who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War and President Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon after the Watergate Scandal as well as the commutation of Scooter Libby’s term in prison by President George W. Bush. Not all pardons are so politically-motivated, though. Recently, President Obama has exercised his authority, as well, and has pardoned nine people for their crimes, including one man who was sentenced in 1960 for a felony liquor law violation.

Presidential pardons are granted at about the rate of 60 per year, on average, and can only be granted in cases of felony convictions. The process for applying for a Presidential pardon requires that a person convicted of a crime not only completes their sentence, but that they also show reason why their sentence should be pardoned. This is the process of convincing the federal law enforcement agents investigating the application that the criminal is remorseful for the crime that was committed and has taken steps to ensure that further convictions will not happen. Unless the convicted criminal can show reason for the standard five-year waiting period to be waived, most petitions for pardons are not considered until five years after the completion of a sentence.

Felony convictions are the only sentences that can be pardoned or commuted by the President. State-level convictions can be pardoned by most Governors, or they may be able to grant clemency to the person currently serving a sentence by reducing the time involved or forgiving the crime all together.




If a Presidential pardon is denied, there is no appeals process. The applicant can re-apply no sooner than two years after the official denial is recorded,  and there is no other recourse. If a Presidential pardon is granted, it does not remove the conviction from the criminal’s record, and, if asked, the conviction should be disclosed, as well as its clemency status.

Presidential pardons, even those that are fiercely political in nature, such as the pardons by Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush, are written into the U.S. Constitution as an executive power. These pardons serve to not only overturn convictions, but also can be interpreted as ways to shield others from prosecution.  In response to the serious nature of Presidential pardons, it has become an annual Thanksgiving tradition to even pardon a turkey from its fate as a celebratory food, making light of the serious  nature of Presidential pardons, but also showing that the President can be merciful and magnanimous.

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