President Bush has been called a liar, a fear monger, a war monger, a puppet, a simpleton and a bully. Well, I’d like to add one more name to the list: Indian giver.
On the Wednesday before Christmas, the president pardoned Isaac Robert Toussie, the New York developer who, in 2001, was found guilty of mail fraud, making false statements to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and luring hundreds of poor New Yorkers into purchasing overpriced, defective homes.
The next day, Christmas Eve, President Bush took back the pardon after the New York Daily News reported that Toussie’s father, Robert, donated $28,500 to the Republican Party just months before Toussie filed his pardon petition. How Grinch-like.
Not only did Toussie’s pardon look like a back-room deal, it circumvented the proper channels. While most pardon requests go through the Justice Department, an individual can appeal directly to the White House, as Toussie did. After all, the Constitution gives the president the power to grant a pardon or commutation to any person and for any reason.
This case raises an important question: Is such an unchecked executive power fit for a democracy?
Pardons are by no means a footnote to the Constitution – they are listed as high up as Article II, Section II: “The president, furthermore, may grant pardon or reprieves, except in cases of impeachment.”
Pardons have been a source of controversy from the outset. Anti-Federalists were the first to object – citing royal abuse of the pardon power in Europe. But Alexander Hamilton argued in The Federalist No. 74 that “in seasons of insurrection or rebellion, there are often critical moments when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquility of the commonwealth.”
James Madison, however, acknowledged the potential for abuse and offered a solution to such abuse: “[I]f the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds to believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty.”
In 1794, George Washington issued the first pardon to the Whiskey Rebels convicted of treason. Andrew Johnson ran into trouble when he pardoned thousands of former Confederate officials and military personnel.
Perhaps the most famous pardon in American history came when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
The controversial pardon list continues. Jimmy Carter took heat for granting amnesty to Vietnam draft evaders. George H. W. Bush pardoned six members of the Reagan administration connected with the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton provoked outrage when he pardoned fugitive Marc Rich – charged with tax fraud and running illegal oil deals with Iran during the 1979-1980 hostage crisis.
George W. Bush’s 191 pardons and nine commutations are far fewer than his two-term predecessors, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Bush, however, took flak for commuting the 30-month prison sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby – Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff – who in 2003 was convicted of perjury and obstructing justice. (I’m not going to argue with that pardon – no one with a conscience would let someone named Scooter do time.)
Does this monarchical leftover still have a place in our democracy? Is it right for one man to have the almost unlimited power to issue pardons and grant reprieves?
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) doesn’t think so. In late November, Nadler introduced a resolution proposing a constitutional amendment that would abolish the president’s power to give “preemptive pardons” to senior officials in his administration that have committed crimes like wiretapping and torture in the course of “official duty.”
The phrase “preemptive pardons” sounded alarmingly “Minority Report”-ish to me, so I did some research. Sure enough, in 1866, the Supreme Court decided that the pardon power “extends to every offence known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken, or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.”
In other words, I can rob a bank, apply for a pardon, and get my record wiped clean before stepping foot in a court. (Of course, I’d probably have to contribute to the president’s re-election campaign somewhere along the way.)
Ford’s pardon of Nixon was one such “preemptive pardon” – occurring before any charges were filed. Ford absolved Nixon of “all offenses against the United States which he . has committed or may have committed or taken part in” during his five-year presidency.
I now know why Nixon became such a troubled and tortured man later in life. It’s because he had a five-year window to commit any crime he wanted and he wasted it on obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Lame. He could have committed cool crimes like stealing cars or moonshining or having a pet alligator.
But that is beside the point. The point is, absolute power can be abused. And though no major or devastating abuses have yet occurred, that is not to say they never will.
We’re living in the closest thing we can get to a democracy. We’re no longer in the days where Caesar can raise or lower his thumb to decide a man’s fate.
aybe unchecked presidential pardons are no longer Ã propos. Pardon my French.
Andrew Dubbins is a sophomore in the College. He can be reached at dubbinsthehoya.com. Breaking News appears every other Tuesday.
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