In the “light legal news” department, this is the week that President Obama will follow long-standing Executive Office tradition and pardon a turkey, although it’s rumored that Senator Lindsey Graham is going to block it unless the president lets him interview somebody involved with Benghazi. It’s a sign of how bad things are going for Obama that he’s planning to announce that the reason the turkey is staying alive is due to his signing up for health insurance on the healthcare.gov website.
As per usual, the turkey is being pardoned for the “crime” of being a large tasty fowl associated with Thanksgiving by dint of almost certainly erroneously being considered the main course some four hundred years ago at a friendly little get-together between the Pilgrims and Native Americans, which the latter now affectionately refer to as “the other Last Supper.”
Pardons are in the news this week, which is rare, considering that President Obama is among the most parsimonious presidents in recent times in granting them. As of mid-October, Obama had issued 39 pardons (excluding turkeys, presumably) while Clinton, in 8 years issued 396, along with 61 commutations. Clinton pardoned one in every eight applicants; George W. Bush rate was one in every 33. Obama’s rate? Just in every 50.
Speaking of W., he’s a primary reason pardons are in the news. A recent book by Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House sheds more light on the tale that perhaps the primary reason a rift developed between the president and Dick Cheney was that Bush strenuously resisted the Veep’s repeated pleas to pardon his chief of staff and long-time friend Scooter Libby, convicted for lying in the investigation about who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity, Cheney felt Libby deserved a pardon simply for being a friend of Dick Cheney. This was such a headache for Bush that the story goes that virtually the only piece of advice W. gave to the soon-to-be-sworn-in Obama as the two rode together to the Inauguration Day ceremony was to set a “pardon policy” early on and stick to it.
“Anti-pardons” are also in the news thanks to the great state of Alabama, the lone state in the union that permits judges to overturn jury-mandated “life without parole” sentences and impose the death penalty instead, something judges have seen fit to do 95 times. This is obviously a power of tremendous consequence which should be exercised for the most stringent of reasons, which is just what Macon County Judge Dale Segrest did when he overruled a jury and sentenced 19 year old Bobby Waldrop, white, to death because, quote, “If I had not imposed the death sentence, I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people.” The judge actually said this out loud, forgetting that this was a comment meant only to be expressed with his “inside voice.” No word yet on how Waldrop feels about being made an example of how Alabama condemns blacks and whites to death in only 3-1 ratios.
Pardons are inextricably tied in with “mercy,” a sentiment that grows in inverse proportion to how many days remain before Christmas, after which it dwindles in fast retreat, until everyone heads back to work on January 2, at which point it’s gone completely and everyone returns to being their usual hard-ass selves.
But it needn’t be so, especially in the practice of law, where lives can be destroyed or sometimes redeemed, depending on the various powers-that-be in the courtroom. “Mercy” and “pardons” don’t have to be constrained to the holiday season and birds served with giblets and gravy. It’s at least worth considering.
I’m looking at you, Alabama.