Washington — The presidential pardon has always been a controversial executive power conferred by the United States Constitution, which states, in part: "The President shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment." While pardons usually come under the scrutiny of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the president has full authority to grant pardons without any review process. Pardons do not erase a person's criminal record, but they do restore all the rights that a citizen has lost because of that record. Margaret Love, the Justice Department's pardon attorney for both President Bill Clinton and President George Bush, explains, "Sometimes people want it because of a specific civic disability so they can go hunting again, or get into the securities business. But ... most simply want ... to remove the stigma of being a convicted felon."
During his eight years in the White House, Clinton pardoned some 400 people about the same number as Ronald Reagan. George Bush pardoned 77 people in his four years, while Jimmy Carter issued 534 pardons. Immediately before he left office, former President Clinton pardoned 140 people and commuted the sentences of another 36. Many of these people had direct associations with the president and were able to gain access to the upper levels of his administration. Among those pardoned were Marc Rich, the 65-year-old fugitive commodities trader whose wife raised millions for the Democratic Party and the Clinton Library; Roger Clinton, the president's brother; Richard Riley Jr., the son of Clinton's secretary of education, former Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros; and former CIA Director John Deutch.
It was Clinton's pardon of Rich and his associate, Pincus Green, however, that has drawn the most scrutiny. Many people believe that Rich's ex-wife effectively bought his pardon with the contributions she raised. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Mary Jo White, has begun a preliminary investigation to determine whether Clinton violated any laws. According to White, "Various questions have been raised concerning the activities and pardons of Marc Rich and Pincus Green. The United States Attorney's Office and the FBI's New York office have opened an investigation to determine whether there have been any violations of federal law."
Even some of Clinton's fellow Democrats have criticized the former president's actions. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said in an interview, "It looks like, and smells like, a kind of political payoff. You know, sometimes in politics it is possible that what looks and smells one way is, in fact, not what it seems. But this has all the appearance of just the worst, worst aspects of a political payoff." Clinton, however, has denied any wrongdoing. In an interview he said, "I'm bewildered. There's not a single, solitary shred of evidence that I did anything wrong, or that his [Rich's] money changed hands. And there's certainly no evidence that I took any of it."
President Bush has repeatedly downplayed the situation, saying, "It's time to move on." His spokesman, Ari Fleischer commented: "The president's point is that we should move on. ... At the same time, he did say, 'Congress will do what Congress does' because he is respectful of Congress' prerogatives."
There are two methods through which a presidential pardon can be questioned: through judicial review and, to a limited degree, by Congress. Throughout the history of the presidential pardon, the U.S. Supreme Court has, for the most part, worked only to expand the president's power of pardon. In 1855, the Court ruled that a president can issue full or conditional pardons [ex parte Wells]. In 1867, it ruled that a president could issue pardons before, during or after a person's conviction [ex parte Garland]. And in 1927, the Court ruled that a person cannot refuse a presidential pardon [Biddle v. Perovich].
While Congress cannot overturn a presidential pardon, it can act to change the Constitution so that it limits the power in the future. Another tactic is for members of Congress to "go public" in the hope that public scrutiny would deter a president from using his power. But, for now, the power of the pardon is absolute.