Republican criminals, start your typewriters. It's Pardon Season! The AP reports that President George W. Bush (remember him?) pardoned 14 people and commuted two prison sentences today, though very likely not for anyone you've heard of (I hadn't). So far, Bush has, in his eight years, already pardoned 171 people; Bill Clinton, by contrast, pardoned around 450 over his eight years, including 140 on the night before Bush was inaugurated. George H. W. Bush? Seventy-five total pardons, but he did have a lot less time in office, and a penchant for hand-writing everything.
But this new gang of fourteen is likely just a teensy taste of what's to come. Matthew Yglesias:
In theory, the American system of justice is perfect, and should require no outs. Right? Two-hundred years of codes and juries and innocent-until-proven-guilty -- that's all served us pretty well. Defendants are protected against themselves, against bad evidence, against bad procedure, and when one layer of the system fails, there's almost always an appeal to be made. So if that's all true -- why were there pardons introduced in the first place?
OK, so that's not always how it works, and the pardon was born a check -- one of the few -- on the judicial system. Checks and balances, remember those? We had them back when Congress worked, which was... let me get back to you on that.
Anyway, the best argument for a pardon is speed. Even if all of the above about the justice system was true, it's easy to trace out a way for an innocent citizen to sit behind bars for years while all of those fair and legal procedures wound out. We built this "perfect system" to be slow -- and I value that, and want that to continue. The price of that slowness may be the need for something like the presidential (or gubernatorial) pardon, where one woman or man -- advised, in every case, by a government-employed legal team -- can say, something's gone wrong, here. The diabetic 62-year-old who's been in jail for 19 years (with 11 to go) for providing protection to FBI agents posing as drug dealers, whose first case ended in a hung jury... yeah, it seems like not such a bad move for him to be going home for the holidays.
Yes, the power has been -- and I'm sure will continue to be -- abused. But is the cost worth the benefit? Is the risk of having the power used irresponsibly, or in pursuit of goals I don't support, worth the benefit of having it present for the uses it was designed for, or for times when it may be necessary to right what I consider wrongs? In short, the power to pardon seems like an enormous and terrifying power in the hands of a president I don't trust, but I don't want the power taken away from those that I do -- and so, overall, maybe it should stay. Maybe it's worth the risk of a Bush to allow it to an Obama.
There's an even more important question lurking underneath this specific issue of pardons: should the president have as much power as he does? If you've asked me that question in the last eight years, my gut reaction would've been NO -- but now I'm much less certain. It's a question we should all be asking ourselves in the coming years, and a question we should have asked many times in the past eight, about every kind of presidential power.