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What is a Presidential Pardon?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A presidential pardon, according to the US constitution, is the right given to presidents to pardon others for committing crimes, to commute sentences of those who have committed crimes, or to extend pardons to those who might be charged with crimes. Notable presidential pardons of the past include President Ford’s pardoning of President Nixon, President Clinton’s presidential pardon of Mark Rich, and President George W. Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s term in prison. These decisions have not always been popular, but the right to exercise presidential pardon is written in the US Constitution.

To paraphrase the rights given in Article II, Section 2 of the constitution, the president can pardon anyone, commute sentences or change sentences for anyone, unless he is impeached. According to present interpretation of this law, the presidential pardon extends to the president himself, and may be used even if a person has not yet been charged with “crimes against the United States.” Thus the presidential pardon can be used not only to overturn convictions, but also to shield people from prosecution.

There have been numerous presidential pardon decisions that have been in the best interest of the United States, at least as perceived by some historians. Decisions to pardon leaders and generals in the Confederate States at the close of the Civil War were meant to help promote peace between the states as the Southern states that seceded were once more part of the Union. President Jimmy Carter pardoned those who had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War in hopes that many citizens would be able to return home. His decision was not particularly popular among those who had served in Vietnam, but it was popular for the many who had protested the war.

In the US, presidents receive requests for pardons of individuals or groups on a regular basis. Average rate of granting pardons is about 10% of those requested, or roughly 60 pardons a year. To deal with the number of pardon requests, the Office of the Pardon Attorney reviews pardons, and makes recommendations to the president on which petitions may be deserving. In most cases, the President can only exercise presidential pardon for people who have committed federal crimes. Many governors have the right to pardon people accused of state crimes.

Some form of pardon laws exists in numerous countries, not just the US. France, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, India, Iran, the UK and many other countries have either presidential pardon laws, or laws that allow their leaders to exert the right to pardon. As in the US, governments that are broken into territories or states may grant pardoning rights to local authorities — like state governors — in addition to allowing the president or leader of a country to grand pardons. The degree to which presidential pardons exist and are granted depends on a variety of circumstances and laws governing each country.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By sneakers41 — On Sep 17, 2010

Bhutan-What I like is when the President’s offer the traditional Presidential turkey pardon. It really gets you into the spirit of Thanksgiving festivities.

By Bhutan — On Sep 17, 2010

Latte31-I remember that.I remembered that President Clinton pardon a whole bunch of people. He pardoned Patty Hearst, the heir to the Hearst publishing fortune.

In addition, he pardoned Mark Rich who evaded almost $50 million in taxes and had over 50 counts of fraud against him.

His wife was a prominent donor to the Clinton Campaign. This action, along with the pardon of his brother Roger and his former business associate Susan McDougal really started to paint President Clinton in a very unflattering light and enraged many.

By latte31 — On Sep 17, 2010

Anon54302- Presidential pardons in the U.S. involve United States citizens and crimes committed against the United States. For a crime committed in another country, I would image that that country has the right to pardon the person, not the U.S.

I wanted to add that the most famous presidential pardons involved President Nixon and President Ford. A presidential pardon is when a President commutes a person’s sentence to time served, meaning that they no longer need to serve time incarcerated.

President Nixon pardoned Jimmy Hoffa, the well known Teamster Leader on the condition that he stays away from Labor Unions. Jimmy Hoffa did not comply and a year later disappeared.

President Ford, pardoned President Nixon for the Watergate scandal and many feel that it was this gesture that contributed most to his defeat against President Carter in 1976.

By anon54302 — On Nov 29, 2009

In South Africa If a person has committed a theft or fraud offense and found guilty in 1993 and got a suspended sentence or paid a fine and therefore has a criminal record but is now studying risk management and in 2009 graduate but could not be employed as he has a criminal record, could he apply for a presidential pardon or an eviction of his record which is older than 10 years?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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