NewYorkUniversity
LawReview
Current Issue

Volume 90, Number 3

June 2015

Clemency and Presidential Administration of Criminal Law

Rachel E. Barkow

President Obama’s use of enforcement discretion to achieve important domestic policy initiatives—including in the field of criminal law—has sparked a vigorous debate about where the President’s duty under the Take Care Clause ends and legitimate enforcement discretion begins. But even with broad power to set enforcement charging policies, the President controls only the discretion of his or her agents at the front end to achieve policy goals. What about enforcement decisions already made, either by the President’s own agents or by actors in previous administrations, with which the President disagrees? The Framers anticipated this issue in the context of criminal law and vested the President with broad and explicit back-end control through the constitutional pardon power. This clemency power is a powerful tool for the President to oversee federal criminal administration. But while centralized authority over enforcement discretion at the front end has grown, the clemency power finds itself falling into desuetude.

This Article explores the fall of the clemency power and argues for its resurrection as a critical mechanism for the President to assert control over the executive branch in criminal cases. While clemency has typically been referred to as an exercise of mercy and even analogized to religious forgiveness, it also serves a more structurally important role in the American constitutional order that has been largely overlooked: It is a critical mechanism for the President to control the executive department in criminal matters. Those in favor of strong presidential administration or advocates of a unitary executive theory should encourage a more robust employment of the clemency power. But even critics of strong presidential powers or unitary executive theory in other contexts should embrace clemency as a mechanism of control in the criminal sphere. Whatever the merits of other unitary executive or presidential administration claims involving military power or oversight over administrative agencies, clemency stands on different footing. It is explicitly and unambiguously grounded in the Constitution’s text, and it has an established historical pedigree. It is also a crucial checking mechanism given the landscape of criminal justice today. The current environment of expansive federal criminal laws and aggressive charging by federal prosecutors has produced a criminal justice system of unprecedented size and scope. Federal prisons are overcrowded and expensive, and hundreds of thousands of individuals are hindered from reentering society because of a federal record. Clemency is a key tool for addressing poor enforcement decisions and injustices in this system, as well as checking disparities in how different U.S. Attorneys enforce the law.