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Can someone explain to me why US presidents have the right to pardon anyone they want for any crime, without limit? This ‘noble’ right has its origin in European monarchies, and it was granted to democratically elected leaders for the purposes of restoring peace to their nation after a period of civil unrest — basically to make peace with the opposition and move forward.
But that is not how it’s used. Clinton’s relatives actually accepted fees to get their ‘clients’ on his pardon list. And while Bush said he would not allow any such thing under his administration, he has already pardoned Scooter Libby. There is a huge cohort of political cronies and corporate criminals, including disgraced ex-Canadian tycoon Conrad Black, looking for “get out of jail free” cards when Bush leaves office.
The fact that such pardons are still permitted shows how far we have to go to achieve anything resembling real democracy and fair, consistent justice in our countries. It is no wonder that struggling nations raise their eyebrows at the suggestion that affluent nations are a model they should follow. Justice depends on who you know and how wealthy you are. Our electoral systems are corrupted by bribery disguised as campaign contributions and lobbying. Gerrymandering is still tolerated. Governments are not required to uphold the laws of the land, as the disgraceful state of the US EPA demonstrates. Corporate criminals settle out of court and escape jail terms and punitive fines that ordinary citizens would face. Leaders lie about wars, torture people in secret and not-so-secret prisons, and covertly invade other countries, finance and arm coups, and assassinate leaders they don’t like. Some even issue Napoleonic unilateral “statements” declaring themselves to be exempt from the laws of the land.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that we all yawn when an outgoing leader pardons dozens or hundreds of criminals, and people who have not yet even been charged or convicted of crimes, on a personal whim or because he “owes it” to those with money and power.
But if we had any pretense at all to being just, fair and democratic nations, we would not tolerate it. Constitutionally liberal states (as opposed to totalitarian ones) separate legislative (law-making), executive (law-upholding) and judicial (law-interpreting) functions. It’s a system of checks and balances, but in many nations it’s hopelessly broken, with judicial nominees making the law and overturning election results, and executive branch leaders making laws and exempting themselves and their administrations from being subject to it, or upholding it, as they see fit. Complacent and cowardly legislatures tolerate this because it gets them off the hook from having to make laws that are controversial, that balance the needs and rights of different groups. They can simply pass politically popular laws they know the executive branch will veto or the judiciary will rule unconstitutional, so those other branches can be blamed for the law’s failure.
The right of executive branch leaders to pardon criminals (and pre-emptively pardon the not-yet-prosecuted) is an abhorrent and antiquated right, which corrodes the spirit of constitutional democracy. It’s time that leaders, and their cronies, learned that no one is above the law.
PS: I’m still limping along without a robust way to post to my blog from my new Mac, and an inability to upload new graphics (right now I have to steal images from other sites, or put them up on flickr or picasaweb and link from there). This post was made using the blog’s WYSIWYG screen on Firefox. Apologies for the ongoing formatting problems and dearth of posts. Hope to get this resolved soon.