The United States Constitution gives Presidents the power to commute prison sentences and grant pardons in respect of federal offences. Governors of each State have the same right concerning State law offenders.
So, who gets a pardon and what are the criteria for a Presidential pardon? There doesn’t seem to be any discernable standards which has led critics to suggest that obtaining a pardon is like winning the lottery. No particular rhyme or reason, just dumb luck! Or are there other motives?
A review of some pardons over the last few decades illustrates the arbitrary nature of Presidential pardons. A highly contentious pardon was granted by President Richard Nixon to Teamster’s Union president Jimmy Hoffa after his convictions in 1964 for bribery, fraud and jury tampering. He began serving his thirteen year sentence in 1967 but obtained a pardon in mid-1971. The pardon arrangement included Hoffa’s agreement to remove himself from Teamster management and he did so for a short while.
Critics of the Hoffa pardon took note that his pardon occurred very close to the Presidential election where Nixon was seeking a second term. The Teamster’s Union, numbering over 1.5 million members, were persuaded to support Republican Nixon in the election, although the union had historically backed the Democratic party. Nixon won the election only to be impeached as a result of the Watergate scandal. Hoffa also had an ignominious ending, mysteriously disappearing after meeting with several high-powered members of the Mafia. His body was never found.
Another example is the pardon of Peter Yarrow of 60’s singing group Peter, Paul and Mary. The composer of “Puff the Magic Dragon” was convicted of the sexual assault of a 14 year old fan who asked him for his autograph. The offence was serious but did not include intercourse. Mr. Yarrow was sentenced to a jail term of one to three years but only served three months as he was pardoned by Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
Although not well-known, Peter Yarrow was married to Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy’s niece. Eyebrows were raised but eventually Mr. Yarrow’s generous philanthropy became his legacy and the sex crime was forgotten. Critics, of course, were furious that a sex offender could be pardoned and there was particular outrage at the fact that while Yarrow plead guilty, he never apologized to his young victim.
These two cases perhaps do shed light on the criteria used to obtain a pardon. It appears that bringing votes during an election may be persuasive and that relatives in high places may also be significant.
Dozens of other pardons have been granted including pardons for President Richard Nixon, heiress Patty Hearst, Yankees’ owner, George Steinbrenner, and President Clinton’s brother, Roger Clinton, to name a few. In future posts I will review their circumstances to determine if we can add to the pardons criteria. I suspect that further examination will reveal additional criteria that have little to do with the time-honoured Rule of Law.