Following on my last post, we will now turn to the pardon power generally and what role Congress plays in checking abuses of that power.
The Pardon Power and Congressional Oversight
The power to pardon is, as Maddie McMahon and Jack Goldsmith note in a recent Lawfare post, “among the broadest of presidential powers.” The Supreme Court has stated:
The power thus conferred [by the Pardon Clause] is unlimited, with the exception stated [i.e., impeachment]. It 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. This power of the President is not subject to legislative control. Congress can neither limit the effect of his pardon nor exclude from its exercise any class of offenders. The benign prerogative of mercy reposed in him cannot be fettered by any legislative restrictions.
Ex parte Garland, 71 U.S. 333, 380 (1866); see also Schick v. Reed, 419 U.S. 256, 266 (1974) (pardon power “flows from the Constitution alone, not from any legislative enactments, and . . . cannot be modified, abridged, or diminished by the Congress.”); United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. 128, 147 (1871) (“To the executive alone is intrusted the power of pardon; and it is granted without limit.”).
Not surprisingly, executive branch lawyers have been particularly forceful in applying this view to a number of issues surrounding the president’s exercise of the pardon power, resulting in what McMahon and Goldsmith term an “extraordinarily broad” interpretation of that power.
For example, the executive branch recognizes no congressional oversight authority with respect to pardons, either generally or in specific cases. Citing the line of Supreme Court authority noted above, the Office of Legal Counsel has opined that “the pardon power is different from many other presidential powers in that it is textually committed exclusively to the President.” Whether the President May Have Access to Grand Jury Material in the Course of Exercising His Authority to Grand Pardons, 24 Op. Off. Legal Counsel 366, 368 (Dec. 22, 2000). Thus, in finding that Congress was not entitled to information regarding President Clinton’s exercise of the pardon power, Attorney General Janet Reno advised that “Congress’ oversight authority does not extend to the process employed in connection with a particular clemency decision, to the materials generated or the discussions that took place as part of that process, or to the advice or views the President received in connection with a clemency decision.” Assertion of Executive Privilege With Respect to Clemency Decision, 23 Op. Off. Legal Counsel 1, 3-4 (Sept. 16, 1999).
This position might strike some as extreme (it so struck me, as I was advising the House committee seeking this information). While no one disputed the president’s unreviewable power to make the clemency decisions in question, one still might conclude the Congress may inquire as to whether congressionally funded resources, such as the Office of the Pardon Attorney, were being properly or effectively used.
The executive’s position, however, flows from its view that the pardon power is not merely unreviewable; it is subject to no objective standards whatsoever. See 24 Op. Off. Legal Counsel at 370 (“it is important to keep in mind that the factors bearing on the President’s decision to exercise his pardon power, as an act of mercy, are subjective and undefined.”). As the pardon attorney wrote to a senator in 1952: “In the exercise of his pardoning power, the President is amenable only to the dictates of his own conscience, unhampered and uncontrolled by any person or branch of Government.” See id. at 370-71. Under this view, the pardon power is truly an example of “l’etat c’est moi;” while a pardon may be criticized as unjust or ill-advised, it can never be illegal or unconstitutional.
The Pardon Power Contrasted with Impeachment
It may be useful to contrast the pardon power with another power the Constitution vests exclusively in one branch of government: the impeachment power. It is generally accepted that Congress has the exclusive and nonreviewable power to impeach and remove the president, the vice president or any civil officer of the United States. See generally Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224 (1993). Thus, for example, whether the Senate has conducted a constitutionally adequate trial within the meaning of the Impeachment Trial Clause is a nonjusticiable political question. Id. at 236-38.
The finality and non-justiciability of Congress’s impeachment determinations, along with the significant discretion it exercises in determining what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” occasioned then-Representative Gerald Ford’s famous and much-criticized remark that “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office. . . .” Some argue that this is an accurate description of how impeachment works. See Michael J. Gerhardt,The Federal Impeachment Process: A Constitutional and Historical Analysis 103 (1996) (“Ford’s observation captures the practical reality of impeachment . . . .”).
As a normative and legal matter, however, Ford was clearly wrong. The Constitution establishes a standard for impeachment and removal (“Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors”), which is textually incompatible, as Professor Rob Natelson has recently observed, with unlimited discretion. The framers specifically rejected a broader formulation, which would have included “maladministration,” precisely on the ground that it would confer too much discretion on Congress and amount to the president holding office “during the pleasure of the Senate,” as James Madison put it. See Charles L. Black, Jr., Impeachment: A Handbook 27-33 (1974).
Thus, while Congress’s impeachment judgments are final, they are not necessarily correct or even defensible. Unlike pardons, specific impeachment decisions can be criticized as legally wrong and unconstitutional. Ford’s observation is therefore perhaps best understood as a parallel to Justice Robert Jackson’s remark about the Supreme Court: “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” In matters of impeachment, Congress is “infallible” only because it is final.
In addition to the constitutional standard, there are significant structural safeguards that limit Congress’s discretion in impeachment matters. First, the initial decision to impeach must be made by the House of Representatives. Even if one believes (reasonably enough) that members “care more” about politics than law, building a solid prima facie case that the constitutional standards have been met is a practical necessity for developing a political consensus in favor of impeachment. Members know they will be accountable to their constituents for a vote to impeach. If impeachment is successful, moreover, the case moves to the Senate, where House managers act as prosecutors in an adversarial proceeding before that body. This creates a strong incentive not to bring cases that are factually or legally weak with regard to whether the accused has committed high crimes or misdemeanors.
As Professor Gerhardt points out, the Constitution provides a number of safeguards “to ensure that Congress will deliberate carefully prior to making any judgments in an impeachment proceeding.” Gerhardt, The Federal Impeachment Process 110. In addition to the House’s role, already noted, in a bifurcated process, these include that the Senate must (1) sit as a court of impeachment “on Oath or Affirmation;” (2) reach a judgment only after conducting a trial; and (3) convict only on the concurrence of two-thirds. The judicial nature of the proceedings is emphasized further when the president is on trial because the chief justice presides. These safeguards help ensure that impeachments do no occur for mere maladministration or policy/political differences. Id. at 111.
In contrast, the pardon power is exercised by a single individual, subject to no constitutional standard, and not required to follow any process at all to ensure careful deliberation. It is not subject to ordinary congressional oversight. There is thus only one constitutional check on the abuse of the pardon power. That check is impeachment. Continue reading “Pardons, Self-Pardons and Impeachment (Part II)”