President Obama’s use of enforcement discretion to achieve important domestic policy initiatives – including in the field of criminal law – have 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 his or her own agents or 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. 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 all but overlooked. It is a critical mechanism for the President to control the executive department. Those in favor of a unitary executive should encourage its more robust employment. But even critics of unitary executive theory should embrace clemency as a mechanism of control because, whatever the merits of other unitary executive 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 comes with an established historical pedigree. It is also a crucial checking mechanism given the landscape of criminal justice today. The current environment of overbroad federal criminal laws and excessive charging by federal prosecutors has produced a criminal justice system of unprecedented size and scope with overcrowded and expensive federal prisons and hundreds of thousands of individuals 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 United States Attorneys enforce the law.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Barkow, Rachel E., "Clemency and the Unitary Executive" (2014). New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers. Paper 475.