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Ask Civics 101: Why Do Outgoing Presidents Issue Pardons? And How Do They Work?

Today's Ask Civics 101 question: Why do outgoing presidents pardon so many people?

Read on, or listen to this short episode for the answer.

Do you have a question for the Civics 101 team? Click here to submit it.

During a president’s lame duckphase, the 70-ish days before a new president takes office,  an interesting thing happens: many departing presidents go on a pardoning spree.

So, what is a presidential pardon?

Article 2 of the Constitution gives the President the power to “grant reprieves and pardons” for federal crimes.

It’s a get out of jail free card. But more than jail is off the table. A person is no longer required to pay fines, follow terms of parole, or disclose the conviction on job applications- things that can really derail life plans.

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The president can pardon pretty much anyone who has committed a crime.

“Article two, Section two of the Constitution says that the president shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States except in cases of impeachment. So that's a pretty broad power," said Andrew Rudalevige, professor of government at Bowdoin College. 

Andrew says there are two exceptions, though.

“One is that it has to be a crime against the United States so a state crime wouldn't count, and secondly, the pardon power can’t be used as a way of avoiding impeachment, explained Andrew.

If you are convicted of a DUI you are out of luck. But counterfeiting, a federal crime, could give you a shot at being pardoned.

Other than that it’s purely discretionary, even if the President’s staff doesn’t agree with it. President Jimmy Carter, for example, granted a blanket pardon to draft dodgers.

Requests for pardons go through the Office of the Pardon Attorney. The pardon attorney can then recommend whether a pardon is warranted.

“Within the Department of Justice, [there is] something called the Office of the pardon attorney. And there is a set of regulations that are designed to systematize this process. I mean, presidents get many thousands of requests for pardons or commutations of sentences every year. And so, you know, most of the people that the president pardons, he doesn't know who they are,” said Andrew.

Some presidents are more generous in granting pardons than others. Truman granted a whopping 41% of the requests he received. But George H. W. Bush granted only 2%.

Alright, that brings us back to the eleventh-hour pardons. Why the sudden flurry of mercy?

In many cases, it’s a matter of legacy. During the final days in office, out-going presidents may try to rush through pet projects and grant pardons to burnish their image.

There have been controversies in the past because presidents bypass the process to give last-minute pardons to friends or donors.

Two hours before Bill Clinton left office, for example, he pardoned financier Marc Rich, whose wife had been a big donor to the Clinton Presidential Library. Some thought Rich had bought his pardon with the donation.

If you have any questions for the Civics 101 team, send them our way! We’re here for you.

Jacqui Fulton is, in her own words, "podcast and public radio’s biggest fan.” She even built a recording studio in her closet.
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