Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Like the Gentle Rain from Heaven (Updated)

I was going to write about Governor Ted's announcement yesterday that he was granting clemency requests to 78 men and women.

Good for him. I've said enough negative things about the guy lately that he deserves some praise for doing something right. On the other hand, with a single exception about which I'm both surprised and pleased, I honestly don't know if the people who got relief were especially deserving or, more important perhaps, if they were more deserving than the people who didn't get relief. (He also denied clemency to 218 men and women.)

Of course, it might have been nice if he'd emptied death row.

And there's the whole thing of it being about time. These applications had been filed in 2005, 2006, and 2007. He's hoping to decide what to do with the 2008 applications sometime before his (hoped for) second term ends.

Still, I don't want to be churlish. It would be nice, after all, if Obama would get around to granting even a single pardon. Just one. Sometime. In an article from from the TimesOnline last month, one the Pardon Power blog rightly calls "very odd," we learn just how slow the President has been.

Professor Douglas Berman, a constitutional expert at Ohio State University, noted last week that only three of 38 presidents between Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan failed to grant pardons during their first 100 days in office. John F Kennedy started slowly but in only 34 months in office pardoned 472 people and commuted 100 prison sentences.

Obama is now in his 10th month as president and has not granted a single clemency or commutation of sentence. “It is a sad and telling commentary on the emptiness of the rhetoric of hope and change [that] President Obama was not able to find even a single case in the massive federal criminal justice system meriting some kind of clemency relief during his first 100 days in office,” said Berman. “I’m very disappointed.”

Of course, if Obama's extraordinarily slow (as in no pardons at all), there's been a downward trend for a bit.

“Pardoning used to be considered a part of the routine housekeeping business of the presidency and hundreds of grants were made every year, without fanfare, to ordinary people,” said Margaret Colgate Love, a lawyer specialising in clemency requests.

“But the system broke down in the Clinton administration and the Justice Department’s pardon office has become a place where petitions for presidential mercy go to die.”

Except that they didn't die completely under Clinton or the lesser Bush. Now they have. Kaput.

The power to pardon, to grant clemency, is the power of mercy. It can be used for error correction, certainly, but at it's most potent it is something more. An act of grace from the sovereign. Not earned or deserved because one cannot earn or deserve grace. It descends.

It's an old fashioned idea, one that our leaders abandoned in favor of pandering to public fear (fanned, of course, by the 24 hour news cycle and the misnamed Nancy Grace). It's worth bringing back.


Doug Berman this morning links to a column in the San Francisco Chronicle, "lamenting the fact that the first use of the pardon power by President Obama will be for a turkey":

On Wednesday, President Obama will issue the White House's standard hokey pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey. It goes with the job. That's good news for the lucky turkey, but not much help for the many nonviolent first offenders languishing in federal prisons because, nine months into office, Obama has yet to exercise his presidential pardon power.

After quoting more from the Chronicle, Berman concludes this way:
As regular readers know, I am a lot more than a "little bit disappointed" about President Obama's failure to make any use of his historic clemency powers. The Obama Administration has obvious spent a lot of time and a lot of political capital seeking to ensure that suspect terrorists at GITMO get treated fairly, but it has yet to find the time or the inclination to make even a single symbolic gesture toward justice or mercy for the thousands of low-level non-violent federal defendants who can make a strong case for clemency attention. Perhaps someone needs to start a new advocacy campaign with this slogan: "President Obama, justice and mercy should not only be for terrorist and turkeys."

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