The Legal Nature of a Pardon

In the first case to be decided concerning the pardoning power, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for the Court, said: “As this power had been exercised from time immemorial by the executive of that nation whose language is our language, and to whose judicial institution ours bear a close resemblance; we adopt their principles respecting the operation and effect of a pardon, and look into their books for the rules prescribing the manner in which it is to be used by the person who would avail himself of it. A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. It is the private, though official act of the executive magistrate, delivered to the individual for whose benefit it is intended, and not communicated officially to the Court. . . . A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” Marshall continued to hold that to be noticed judicially this deed must be pleaded, like any private instrument.271

In Burdick v. United States,272 Marshall’s doctrine was put to a test that seems to have overtaxed it, perhaps fatally. Burdick, having declined to testify before a federal grand jury on the ground that his testimony would tend to incriminate him, was proffered by President Wilson “a full and unconditional pardon for all offenses against the United States,” which he might have committed or participated in in connection with the matter he had been questioned about. Burdick, nevertheless, refused to accept the pardon and persisted in his contumacy with the unanimous support of the Supreme Court. “The grace of a pardon,” remarked Justice McKenna sententiously, “may be only a pretense . . . involving consequences of even greater disgrace than those from which it purports to relieve. 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 . . . .”273 Nor did the Court give any attention to the fact that the President had accompanied his proffer to Burdick with a proclamation, although a similar procedure had been held to bring President Johnson’s amnesties to the Court’s notice.274 In 1927, however, in sustaining the right of the President to commute a sentence of death to one of life imprisonment, against the will of the prisoner, the Court abandoned this view. “A pardon in our days,” it said, “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.”275 Whether these words sound the death knell of the acceptance doctrine is perhaps doubtful.276 They seem clearly to indicate that by substituting a commutation order for a deed of pardon, a President can always have his way in such matters, provided the substituted penalty is authorized by law and does not in common understanding exceed the original penalty.277

Footnotes

271
United States v. Wilson, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 150, 160–61 (1833). [Back to text]
272
236 U.S. 79, 86 (1915). [Back to text]
273
236 U.S. at 90–91. [Back to text]
274
Armstrong v. United States, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 154, 156 (1872). In Brown v. Walker, 161 U.S. 591 (1896), the Court had said: “It is almost a necessary corollary of the above propositions that, if the witness has already received a pardon, he cannot longer set up his privilege, since he stands with respect to such offence as if it had never been committed.” Id. at 599, citing British cases. [Back to text]
275
Biddle v. Perovich, 274 U.S. 480, 486 (1927). [Back to text]
276
Cf. W. HUMBERT, THE PARDONING POWER OF THE PRESIDENT 73 (1941). [Back to text]
277
Biddle v. Perovich, 274 U.S. 480, 486 (1927). In Schick v. Reed, 419 U.S. 256 (1976), the Court upheld the presidential commutation of a death sentence to imprisonment for life with no possibility of parole, the foreclosure of parole being contrary to the scheme of the Code of Military Justice. “The conclusion is inescapable that the pardoning power was intended to include the power to commute sentences on conditions which do not in themselves offend the Constitution, but which are not specifically provided for by statute.” Id. at 264. [Back to text]