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Federal pardons in the United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Barack Obama meeting with prisoners El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in 2015
Barack Obama meeting with prisoners El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in 2015

A federal pardon in the United States is the action of the President of the United States that completely sets aside or commutes (lessens) the punishment for a federal crime. The authority to take such action is granted to the president by Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution. Under the Constitution, the president's clemency power extends to federal criminal offenses.[1] All requests for executive clemency for federal offenses are directed to the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice for investigation and review. The beneficiary of a pardon needs to accept the pardon and acknowledge that the crime did take place.[2]

The Supreme Court has not ruled on whether a president can pardon someone for state or local crimes, dicta in Ex parte Garland stated that the pardon power extends to all offences known to the law .[3] Experts disagree as to whether a president can pardon himself,[4] but pardons cannot apply to cases of impeachment. The pardon can also be used for a presumptive case, such as when President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon over any possible crimes regarding the Watergate scandal.[4]

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Constitutional provision

The pardon powers of the President are based on Article Two of the United States Constitution (Section 2, Clause 1), which provides:

The President ... shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of impeachment.

The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this language to include the power to grant pardons, conditional pardons, commutations of sentence, conditional commutations of sentence, remissions of fines and forfeitures, respites, and amnesties.[5]


  • A pardon is an executive order granting clemency for a conviction. It may be granted "at any point after the ... commission" of the crime.[6] As per Justice Department regulations, convicted persons may only apply five or more years after their sentence has been completed.[7] However, the President's power to pardon is not restricted by any temporal constraints except that the crime must have been committed. Its practical effect is the restoration of civil rights and statutory disabilities (i.e., firearm rights, occupational licensing) associated with a past criminal conviction.[7] In rarer cases, such as the pardon of Richard Nixon, a pardon can also halt criminal proceedings and prevent an indictment.
  • A commutation is the mitigation of the sentence of someone currently serving a sentence for a crime pursuant to a conviction, without cancelling the conviction itself.[7]

Early history

Alexander Hamilton defended the pardon power in The Federalist Papers, particularly in Federalist No. 74.

Pardons granted by presidents from George Washington until Grover Cleveland's first term (1885–1889) were hand written by the president. After typewriters came to be used for regular White House business, pardons were prepared for the president by administrative staff requiring only that the president sign them.[8]

Modern process

As of 2015, Barack Obama had issued more than 1,000 commutations, more than any of his recent predecessors
As of 2015, Barack Obama had issued more than 1,000 commutations, more than any of his recent predecessors

All federal pardon petitions are addressed to the President, who grants or denies the request. Typically, applications for pardons are referred for review and non-binding recommendation by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an official of the United States Department of Justice. The number of pardons and reprieves granted has varied from administration to administration. Fewer pardons have been granted since World War II.[9]

A federal pardon can be issued prior to the start of a legal case or inquiry, prior to any indictments being issued, for unspecified offenses, and prior to or after a conviction for a federal crime.[10] President Gerald Ford's broad federal pardon of former president Richard M. Nixon in 1974 for "all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974" is a notable example of a fixed-period federal pardon that came prior to any indictments being issued and that covered unspecified federal offenses that may or may not have been committed.[10]

The Justice Department requires that anyone requesting a pardon wait five years after conviction or release prior to receiving a pardon.[11] The constitutionality of open pardons, such as Ford's pardon of Nixon, has never been judicially tested in the Supreme Court and is open to question.[12]

While clemency may be granted without the filing of a formal request, in most cases the Office of the Pardon Attorney will consider only petitions from persons who have completed their sentences and, in addition, have demonstrated their ability to lead a responsible and productive life for a significant period after conviction or release from confinement.[13]

The Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Wilson (1833) that a pardon could be rejected by the convict. In Burdick v. United States (1915), the court specifically said: "Circumstances may be made to bring innocence under the penalties of the law. If so brought, escape by confession of guilt implied in the acceptance of a pardon may be rejected, preferring to be the victim of the law rather than its acknowledged transgressor, preferring death even to such certain infamy." Commutations (reduction in prison sentence), unlike pardons (restoration of civil rights after prison sentence had been served) may not be refused. In Biddle v. Perovich 274 U.S. 480 (1927), the subject of the commutation did not want to accept life in prison but wanted the death penalty restored. The Supreme Court said, "[a] pardon in our days is not a private act of grace from an individual happening to possess power. It is a part of the Constitutional scheme. When granted it is the determination of the ultimate authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed."[14]


Federal pardons issued by the president apply only to federal law; they do not apply to civil, state, or local offenses. Federal pardons also do not apply to cases of impeachment. Pardons for state crimes are handled by governors or a state pardon board.[3]

A pardon can be rejected by the intended recipient and must be affirmatively accepted to be officially recognized by the courts. George Wilson was convicted of robbing the US Mail in Pennsylvania and sentenced to death. Due to his friends' influence, Wilson was pardoned by President Andrew Jackson. Wilson refused the pardon and in 1833, the United States Supreme Court held in United States v. Wilson that his rejection—and consequently the pardon not being introduced to the court by "plea, motion, or otherwise" as a point of fact and evidence—was valid and the court could not force a pardon upon him.[15]

The idea of accepting a pardon means an admission of guilt is still debated by many law historians.[16] According to Associate Justice Joseph McKenna, writing the majority opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court case Burdick v. United States, a pardon "carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it."[17] Associate Justice McKenna was referring to cases in the denial of a pardon. His comment was not intended for all pardons. Also, the federal courts have yet to make it clear how this logic applies to persons who are deceased (such as Henry Ossian Flipper, who was pardoned by Bill Clinton), those who are relieved from penalties as a result of general amnesties, and those whose punishments are relieved via a commutation of sentence (which cannot be rejected in any sense of the language).[18] Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University, claims that presidents usually grant a pardon to someone on the basis that the person is innocent. If a president thinks an individual is innocent and issues a pardon, then accepting a pardon would not mean the individual is guilty.[16]

While a presidential pardon will restore various rights lost as a result of the pardoned offense and should lessen to some extent the stigma arising from a conviction, it will not erase or expunge the record of that conviction. Therefore, even if a person is granted a pardon, they must still disclose their conviction on any form where such information is required, although they may also disclose the fact that they received a pardon.[19] In addition, most civil disabilities attendant upon a federal felony conviction, such as loss of the right to vote and hold state public office, are imposed by state rather than federal law, and also may be removed by state action.


The legal and constitutional ability of a president to pardon himself (self-pardon) is an unresolved issue. During the Watergate scandal, President Nixon's lawyer suggested that a self-pardon would be legal, while the Department of Justice issued a memorandum opinion on August 5, 1974, stating that a president cannot pardon himself.[20] The 1974 memo laid out a scenario in which, under the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the president could declare himself unable to perform his duties and could appoint the vice president as acting president. The acting president could then pardon the president and "thereafter the president could either resign or resume the duties of his office."[20]

The issue re-arose in 1998, during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

On July 22, 2017, President Donald Trump tweeted, "While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us.FAKE NEWS" [sic], prompting a series of news article and online commentary regarding the president's ability to pardon relatives, aides, and possibly even himself in relation to the 2017 Special Counsel investigation.[21]


The pardon power was controversial from the outset; many Anti-Federalists remembered examples of royal abuses of the pardon power in Europe, and warned that the same would happen in the new republic. Critics[who?] argue that pardons have been used more often for the sake of political expediency than to correct judicial error.

In the 18th century, George Washington granted the first high-profile federal pardon to leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion on his final day in office.[22]

In the 19th century, Andrew Johnson controversially issued sweeping pardons of thousands of former Confederate officials and military personnel after the American Civil War.[23]

In the 20th century, President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon on September 8, 1974, for official misconduct which gave rise to the Watergate scandal.[24] Polls showed a majority of Americans disapproved of the pardon, and Ford's public-approval ratings tumbled afterward.[25] Other controversial uses of the pardon power include Jimmy Carter's grant of amnesty to Vietnam-era draft dodgers on his second day in office, January 21, 1977;[26] George H. W. Bush's pardons of 75 people, including six Reagan administration officials, accused or convicted in connection with the Iran–Contra affair; and Bill Clinton's commutation of sentences for 16 members of FALN in 1999.

In the 21st century, Clinton's pardons of 140 people on his last day in office, January 20, 2001, including billionaire fugitive Marc Rich and his own brother, Roger Clinton, were heavily criticized. President Donald Trump issued his first pardon to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio on August 25, 2017. Arpaio had been convicted of criminal contempt in federal court. Trump's pardon was met with widespread criticism from political opponents, and was relatively unusual because it was issued early in Trump's presidency.[27]

Symbolic use

A symbolic use of the presidential pardon is the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation each Thanksgiving, in which a domestic turkey is pardoned from being slaughtered for Thanksgiving dinner and allowed to live out its life on a farm.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Executive Clemency | PARDON | Department of Justice". Archived from the original on 2017-11-28. Retrieved 2017-01-28.
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Department of Justice FAQ
  4. ^ a b "Presidential Pardons – ABA Legal Fact Check – American Bar Association". Retrieved 2017-08-30.
  5. ^ Ruckman, P. S. Jr. (1997). "Executive Clemency in the United States: Origins, Development, and Analysis (1900–1993)". Presidential Studies Quarterly. 27 (2): 251–271. JSTOR 27551729.
  6. ^ "Ex Parte Garland". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2017-02-06. The power thus conferred is unlimited, with the exception stated. It extends to every offence known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency or after conviction and judgment.
  7. ^ a b c "USDOJ: Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Executive Clemency". USDOJ.
  8. ^ Ruckman Jr., P. S. (November 4, 1995). "Federal Executive Clemency in United States". Archived from the original on March 26, 2011. Retrieved March 19, 2011.
  9. ^ Ruckman, P. S. Jr. "Presidential Pardons by Administration, 1789–2001". Rock Valley College. Retrieved July 22, 2017.
  10. ^ a b Kalt, Brian (May 19, 2017). "Can Trump Pardon Himself?". Foreign Policy. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
  11. ^ "28 C.F.R. § 1.2 Eligibility for filing petition for pardon". Retrieved September 5, 2017.
  12. ^ Duker, William F. (1976). "The President's Power to Pardon: A Constitutional History". Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 18: 475–537. The Supreme Court never has been called upon to judge the validity of an open pardon like the Nixon pardon. If it must do so in the future and if it continues to view Article II, section 2 in light of the meaning the framers intended it to have, the evidence raises a reasonable doubt of the constitutionality of the Nixon pardon.
  13. ^ "Clemency Regulations". United States Department of Justice. Retrieved 2007-03-08.
  14. ^ Biddle v. Perovich 274 U.S. 480 (1927), at 486
  15. ^ "United States v. Wilson: 32 U.S. 150 (1833)". Retrieved July 24, 2017.
  16. ^ a b Kalt, Brian. "Five myths about presidential pardons". The Washington Post. Washington Post. Retrieved 2 April 2019.
  17. ^ "How the Nixon Pardon Strained a Presidential Friendship". 2011-12-13. Retrieved 2017-08-10.
  18. ^ see Chapman v. Scott (C. C. A.) 10 F.(2d) 690)
  19. ^ "Pardon Information and Instructions". Office of the Pardon Attorney (USDOJ). Retrieved 2014-05-20.
  20. ^ a b "Presidential or Legislative Pardon of the President" (PDF). 1974-08-05. Retrieved 2017-07-24.
  21. ^ "Trump Says He Has 'Complete Power' to Pardon". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-07-22.
  22. ^ "Whiskey Rebellion | Definition, History, & Significance". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-11-15.
  23. ^ Johnson, Andrew. (December 25, 1868). Proclamation 179 – Granting Full Pardon and Amnesty for the Offense of Treason Against the United States During the Late Civil War. Retrieved February 2, 2017.
  24. ^ "Ford Gives Pardon To Nixon, Who Regrets 'My Mistakes'". The New York Times. September 9, 1974.
  25. ^ Inc., Gallup,. "Gerald Ford Retrospective".CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  26. ^ "Carter pardons draft dodgers Jan. 21, 1977".
  27. ^ Liptak, Kevin; Diaz, Daniella; Tatum, Sophie (August 27, 2017). "Trump pardons former Sheriff Joe Arpaio". CNN. Retrieved August 27, 2017.
  28. ^ "Obama pardons turkeys and tells dad jokes for Thanksgiving tradition – video". The Guardian. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
This page was last edited on 19 September 2019, at 23:30
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