Most people know that the President of the United States has the power to issue pardons – and people regularly appeal to whoever is in office for post-conviction relief.
However, there’s a lot of confusion about how presidential pardons actually work. Here are some of the most common questions people have when they’re contemplating the process.
Can the President pardon absolutely anything?
Article 11, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives the President fairly broad authority to pardon anybody they please, except in cases of impeachment – so long as the petitioner was convicted in a United States District Court, a military court martial or the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.
The President cannot issue a pardon for someone who was convicted in a state court because state-level offenses are not considered offenses against the U.S. as a whole. The President also cannot issue a pardon for crimes that have yet to be committed.
How do you submit a request for a pardon?
Formal requests for clemency are submitted to the Office of the Pardon Authority (OPA) within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
The OPA reviews all the petitions and evaluates the merits of each request based on things like the seriousness of the offense, the social implications or justness of the conviction, the post-conviction conduct of the petitioner and whether they’ve accepted responsibility for their actions. When finished, the OPA makes a recommendation on whether to approve or deny the pardon. It’s important to note, though, that the OPA’s role is merely advisory. All final decision-making authority rests entirely with the President.
Because they can sometimes be unpopular and have significant political ramifications, many Presidents have waited until the end of their terms to issue the majority of their pardons. That’s something to keep in mind as another election cycle draws closer as you think about the timing involved in your request.