Scope of the Pardon Power

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ArtII.S2.C1.3.1.1 Scope of the Pardon Power

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

The pardon power embraces all “offences against the United States,” except cases of impeachment, and includes the power to remit fines, penalties, and forfeitures, except as to money covered into the Treasury or paid an informer,1 the power to pardon absolutely or conditionally, and the power to commute sentences, which, as seen above, is effective without the convict’s consent.2 It has been held, moreover, in face of earlier English practice, that indefinite suspension of sentence by a court of the United States is an invasion of the presidential prerogative, amounting as it does to a condonation of the offense.3 It was early assumed that the power included the power to pardon specified classes or communities wholesale, in short, the power to amnesty, which is usually exercised by proclamation. General amnesties were issued by Washington in 1795, by Adams in 1800, by Madison in 1815, by Lincoln in 1863, by Johnson in 1865, 1867, and 1868, and by Theodore Roosevelt—to Aguinaldo’s followers—in 1902.4 Not until after the Civil War, however, was the point adjudicated, when it was decided in favor of presidential prerogative.5

The President cannot pardon by anticipation, or he would be invested with the power to dispense with the laws, King James II's claim to which was the principal cause of his forced abdication.6

Offenses Against the United States: Contempt of Court

The President may pardon criminal but not civil contempts of court. The Court “point[ed] out that it is not the fact of punishment but rather its character and purpose that makes the difference between the two kinds of contempts. For civil contempts, the punishment is remedial and for the benefit of the complainant, and a pardon cannot stop it. For criminal contempts the sentence is punitive in the public interest to vindicate the authority of the court and to deter other like derelictions.” 7 In upholding the President's power to pardon criminal contempt, Chief Justice Taft, speaking for the Court, resorted once more to English conceptions as being authoritative in construing this clause of the Constitution. He wrote: “The King of England before our Revolution, in the exercise of his prerogative, had always exercised the power to pardon contempts of court, just as he did ordinary crimes and misdemeanors and as he has done to the present day. In the mind of a common law lawyer of the eighteenth century the word pardon included within its scope the ending by the King’s grace of the punishment of such derelictions, whether it was imposed by the court without a jury or upon indictment, for both forms of trial for contempts were had. [Citing cases.] These cases also show that, long before our Constitution, a distinction had been recognized at common law between the effect of the King’s pardon to wipe out the effect of a sentence for contempt in so far as it had been imposed to punish the contemnor for violating the dignity of the court and the King, in the public interest, and its inefficacy to halt or interfere with the remedial part of the court’s order necessary to secure the rights of the injured suitor. Blackstone IV, 285, 397, 398; Hawkins Pleas of the Crown, 6th Ed. (1787), Vol. 2, 553. The same distinction, nowadays referred to as the difference between civil and criminal contempts, is still maintained in English law.” 8 Nor was any new or special danger to be apprehended from this view of the pardoning power. “If,” the Chief Justice asked, “we could conjure up in our minds a President willing to paralyze courts by pardoning all criminal contempts, why not a President ordering a general jail delivery?” Although, he added, “[t]he power of a court to protect itself and its usefulness by punishing contemnors is of course necessary,” in light of the fact that a court exercises this power “without the restraining influence of a jury and without many of the guaranties [sic] which the bill of rights offers[,] . . . [m]ay it not be fairly said that in order to avoid possible mistake, undue prejudice or needless severity, the chance of pardon should exist at least as much in favor of a person convicted by a judge without a jury as in favor of one convicted in a jury trial?” 9

Effects of a Pardon: Ex parte Garland

The leading case on this subject is Ex parte Garland,10 which was decided shortly after the Civil War. By an act passed in 1865, Congress had prescribed that, before any person should be permitted to practice in a federal court, he must take oath asserting that he had “never voluntarily borne arms against the United States,” had never given aid or encouragement “to persons engaged in armed hostilities” against the United States, and so forth.11 Garland, who had “taken part in the Rebellion against the United States, by being in the Congress of the so-called Confederate States,” and so was unable to take the oath, had, however, received from President Johnson “a full pardon ‘for all offences by him committed, arising from participation, direct or implied, in the Rebellion,’” 12 The question before the Court was whether, armed with this pardon, Garland was entitled to practice in the federal courts despite the act of Congress just mentioned. Justice Field wrote for a divided Court: “[T]he inquiry arises as to the effect and operation of a pardon, and on this point all the authorities concur. A pardon reaches both the punishment prescribed for the offence and the guilt of the offender; and when the pardon is full, it releases the punishment and blots out of existence the guilt, so that in the eye of the law the offender is as innocent as if he had never committed the offence. If granted before conviction, it prevents any of the penalties and disabilities consequent upon conviction from attaching; if granted after conviction, it removes the penalties and disabilities, and restores him to all his civil rights; it makes him, as it were, a new man, and gives him a new credit and capacity.” 13

Justice Miller, speaking for the minority, protested that the act of Congress involved was not penal in character, but merely laid down an appropriate test of fitness to practice law. “The man who, by counterfeiting, by theft, by murder, or by treason, is rendered unfit to exercise the functions of an attorney or counselor-at-law, may be saved by the executive pardon from the penitentiary or the gallows, but he is not thereby restored to the qualifications which are essential to admission to the bar.” 14 Justice Field’s language must today be regarded as too sweeping in light of the 1914 decision in Carlesi v. New York.15 Carlesi had been convicted several years before of committing a federal offense. In the instant case, he was being tried for a subsequent offense committed in New York. He was convicted as a second offender, although the President had pardoned him for the earlier federal offense. In other words, the fact of prior conviction by a federal court was considered in determining the punishment for a subsequent state offense. This conviction and sentence were upheld by the Supreme Court. Although this case involved offenses against different sovereignties, the Court declared in dictum that its decision “must not be understood as in the slightest degree intimating that a pardon would operate to limit the power of the United States in punishing crimes against its authority to provide for taking into consideration past offenses committed by the accused as a circumstance of aggravation even although for such past offenses there had been a pardon granted.” 16

Limits to the Efficacy of a Pardon

But Justice Field’s latitudinarian view of the effect of a pardon undoubtedly still applies ordinarily where the pardon is issued before conviction. He is also correct in saying that a full pardon restores a convict to his “civil rights,” and this is so even though simple completion of the convict’s sentence would not have had that effect. One such right is the right to testify in court, and in Boyd v. United States, the Court held that “[t]he disability to testify being a consequence, according to the principles of the common law, of the judgment of conviction, the pardon obliterated that effect.” 17 But a pardon “does not make amends for the past. It affords no relief for what has been suffered by the offender in his person by imprisonment, forced labor, or otherwise; it does not give compensation for what has been done or suffered, nor does it impose upon the government any obligation to give it. The offence being established by judicial proceedings, that which has been done or suffered while they were in force is presumed to have been rightfully done and justly suffered, and no satisfaction for it can be required. Neither does the pardon affect any rights which have vested in others directly by the execution of the judgment for the offence, or which have been acquired by others whilst that judgment was in force. If, for example, by the judgment a sale of the offender’s property has been had, the purchaser will hold the property notwithstanding the subsequent pardon. And if the proceeds of the sale have been paid to a party to whom the law has assigned them, they cannot be subsequently reached and recovered by the offender. The rights of the parties have become vested, and are as complete as if they were acquired in any other legal way. So, also, if the proceeds have been paid into the treasury, the right to them has so far become vested in the United States that they can only be secured to the former owner of the property through an act of Congress. Moneys once in the treasury can only be withdrawn by an appropriation by law.” 18

23 Ops. Atty. Gen. 360, 363 (1901); Illinois Cent. R.R. v. Bosworth, 133 U.S. 92 (1890). back
Ex parte William Wells , 59 U.S. (18 How.) 307 (1856). For the contrary view, see some early opinions of the Attorney General, 1 Ops. Atty. Gen. 341 (1820); 2 Ops. Atty. Gen. 275 (1829); 5 Ops. Atty. Gen. 687 (1795); cf. 4 Ops. Atty. Gen. 458 (1845); United States v. Wilson, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 150, 161 (1833). back
Ex parte United States, 242 U.S. 27 (1916). Amendment of sentence, however, within the same term of court, by shortening the term of imprisonment, although defendant had already been committed, is a judicial act and no infringement of the pardoning power. United States v. Benz, 282 U.S. 304 (1931). back
See 1 J. Richardson, supra, at 173, 293; 2 id. at 543; 7 id. at 3414, 3508; 8 id. at 3853; 14 id. at 6690. back
United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 128, 147 (1872). See also United States v. Padelford, 76 U.S. (9 Wall.) 531 (1870). back
F. Maitland, Constitutional History of England 302–306 (W.S. Hein 2006) (1908); 1 Ops. Atty. Gen. 342 (1820). That is, the pardon may not be in anticipation of the commission of the offense. “A pardon may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken, or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.” Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 333, 380 (1867), as indeed President Ford’s pardon of former President Nixon preceded institution of any action. On the Nixon pardon controversy, see Pardon of Richard M. Nixon and Related Matters: Hearings Before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, 93d Congress, 2d Sess. (1974). back
Ex parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87, 113 (1925). back
267 U.S. at 110–11. back
267 U.S. at 121, 122. back
71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 333 (1867). back
71 U.S. (4 Wall.) at 334–35. back
71 U.S. (4 Wall.) at 336, 375. back
71 U.S. at 380–81. back
71 U.S. at 397. back
233 U.S. 51 (1914). back
233 U.S. at 59. back
142 U.S. 450, 453–54 (1892). back
Knote v. United States, 95 U.S. 149, 153–54 (1877). back

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