Pardons Explained

Key Points

  • Pardons allow executive government officials to forgive someone for a crime.
  • The Power of the Pardon cannot be used in cases of impeachment, and pardons are limited in scope - for example, the president can only grant pardons for federal crimes.
  • Pardons are thought of as a human element in the judiciary system: Forgiveness.
  • Critics liken them to "free passes" or "Get out of jail free cards"
  • All but two U.S. Presidents have granted at least one pardon.


The power of the pardon is the power of an official to forgive a person accused of a crime and prevent any further punishment for that crime. The more notable pardon power is that of the U.S. President, though most governors also have the ability to grant pardons. The president is able to grant pardons for those accused of federal crimes, but the power does not allow them to pardon state-level crimes.

History of the Presidential Pardon

For simplicity, we will focus this article on the presidential pardon, a power used at least once by all but two presidents - James Garfield and William Henry Harrison. Garfield served as president only six and a half months before being assassinated, while Harrison died 31 days into his term.

Over the years, the power of the pardon has been both praised and criticized. Some argue that the power of the pardon serves as a necessary human element of forgiveness in a justice system without mercy, while others point to examples of pardons used like "Get out of jail free cards" for allies closest to the president. 

Can a president pardon themself?

A self-pardon is not mentioned in the U.S Constitution, the only restriction on the power of the pardon explicitly stated in the text is that a presidential pardon can be used for only federal crimes and does not apply to cases of impeachment. It is a common thought, though, that since a pardon is considered to be a gift of mercy, it would be against the spirit of the pardon to pardon oneself. In addition, the Constitution was written with the balance of power in mind. Unchecked executive action was not the popular opinion. That in mind, it would stand to reason that the self-pardon would be unconstitutional, as it would essentially place the president above the law.

The issue was brought up during the aftermath of the Watergate Scandal. Could President Nixon preemptively pardon himself before resignation? In a memo from Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lawton at the time, Lawton stated that such a pardon would not be valid, since “under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, it would seem that the question should be answered in the negative.” In the end, Nixon did not pardon himself but was instead pardoned by the next president, Gerald Ford.

During the last few weeks of the Trump Administration, the question of the self-pardon began to be more seriously discussed again. If Trump were to pardon himself, it would probably depend on the decision of the Department of Justice to either continue prosecution or back off. If they were to permit the continuation of investigation and prosecution despite a presidential self-pardon, the constitutional question would likely end up before the Supreme Court

Basil E. Bacorn

Basil E. Bacorn is an author, artist, entrepreneur, and aspiring entertainer. He has written and published over ten books, including Geek Gods, The Book of Random Thoughts, The Circle's Problem, and the Dark's Descent Series, and has earned an associate's degree in Business and Entrepreneurial Studies.

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