On Pardons and Admissions of Guilt

I’ve almost written this post several times, but I’m only just getting around to it. I’ve gotten plenty of opportunities, at least.

Over the years, every time Trump has pardoned one of his cronies – as he recently did with Michael Flynn – one of the reactions (mostly on the left) has been that by accepting the pardon the recipient admits his guilt to whatever offense he is being pardoned for. I think this rests on a misreading of the relevant Supreme Court case. More than that, any quick thought about how pardons normally work show that one doesn’t really have anything to do with admissions of guilt at all.

The Supreme Court case at issue is Burdick v. United States, 236 U.S. 79 (1915). And to be fair, in Burdick the Court did say this, in distinguishing between pardons and legislative immunity:

This brings us to the differences between legislative immunity and a pardon. They are substantial. The latter carries an imputation of guilt; acceptance a confession of it. The former has no such imputation or confession. It is tantamount to the silence of the witness. It is noncommittal. It is the unobtrusive act of the law given protection against a sinister use of his testimony, not like a pardon, requiring him to confess his guilt in order to avoid a conviction of it.

Case closed? No quite, for two reasons. First, there is absolutely no citation to any other case or source to support the idea that accepting a pardon means confessing guilt. Second, no court, even the Supreme Court, proclaims on law in a vacuum. So what was it that was the actual issue in that case?

Burdick was the editor of a New York City newspaper that had published leaks from inside the Treasury Department. The local US Attorney convened a grand jury to investigate and called Burdick, hoping he would name his sources. Instead, Burdick invoked the Fifth Amendment and his right to remain silent. To get him to talk, the US Attorney went to President Woodrow Wilson and obtained a pardon, which would extinguish the ability of Burdick to plead the Fifth (which, coincidentally, is where Flynn is now). Burdick refused to accept the pardon, continued to refuse to testify, and was eventually convicted of contempt for doing so.

When the case reached the Supreme Court the issue was, in the Court’s words, a “narrow question, is the acceptance of a pardon necessary?” Ultimately, the Court held that it was and that the person to whom the President wants to give a pardon doesn’t have to accept it (this is one hook upon which hangs the theory that Trump cannot pardon himself). It was in discussing why someone might not accept a pardon that the Court noted that it can be perceived as an admission of guilt. Thus, what a pardon means to the person accepting it wasn’t the issue before the Court – it was whether the person could reject the pardon in the first place. To my reading, that doesn’t to a clear legal basis for saying that the acceptance of a pardon is an admission of guilt.

But beyond what Burdick actually says (and about what), the idea that parsons require admissions of guilt just doesn’t make sense in a lot of cases and would create some real perversity in other cases.

For one thing, posthumous pardons exist, though they’re rare. In 1999, Bill Clinton entered the first federal one for Henry Flipper, the first African-American to graduate from West Point. It came 118 years after Flipper’s court martial and almost 60 years after he died. Trump did something similar with heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, granting a pardon in 2018 for a bogus Mann Act conviction that occurred in 1913 – Johnson died in 1946. There are countless other examples of posthumous pardons at the state level. Needless to say, the dead cannot admit to anything (they can’t accept anything, raising questions of whether these pardons actually mean anything) or confess to a crime in order to receive pardons. Whether posthumous pardons make any kind of sense, they are a thing, and they argue against the act of pardoning involving any kind of admission of guilt.

For another thing, some pardons are issued in anticipation of prosecution, not after a conviction. The most notable example is Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon after his resignation, not for specific crimes for which he’s already been convicted, but for any crime for which he could have been charged. Notably, while Ford apparently carried hunk of Burdick around with him as proof that an acceptance of a pardon was a confession of guilt, Nixon’s own statement accepting the pardon didn’t confess to any particular crime (although he apologized for the “anguish” his actions had caused – the prototypical “I’m sorry because you’re sad” nonpology). What would the recipient of such a pardon confess to without having been convicted of something?

A related concern is mass pardons, which cover entire classes of people and aren’t concerned with the particular facts of any one case. Such pardons include Andrew Johnson’s mass pardon of ex Confederates after the Civil War (notably, the oath required to get one was all about allegiance going forward, not confessing to past crimes) and Jimmy Carter’s pardon of Vietnam War draft evaders.

Finally, requiring those who are offered pardons to admit guilt in order to receive them would lead to perverse results. Convicted people who are actually innocent may be loath admit to something they don’t believe – that they’re guilty of a crime – in order to get a pardon. This is the same dynamic that sometimes plays out with parole boards – they want some sign that the inmate at issue is remorseful and reformed, but if you’re wrongfully convicted how can you provide that? Furthermore, the use of the pardon power to spare the innocent is, arguably, it’s primary function. Thus, when the Governor of Illinois issue a pardon to Oscar Neebe and his codefendants (convicted in 1886 for taking part in the Haymarket bombing) in 1893, because they were innocent. In 2011, the Governor of Colorado posthumously pardoned a man who had been executed in 1939 because his conviction was based on “a false and coerced confession.” Other examples of similar pardons abound. If, as we’re often told, pardons are supposed to be a kind of safety valve in the criminal justice system, to allow executives to give relief to those who did not commit the crimes of which they were convicted, reading the acceptance of a pardon to mean a confession of guilt makes no sense. Pardons, as well as commutations of sentences, are acts of executive grace, the last vestige of the absolute power once granted to kings. They can be granted for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reason at all. That’s the point – this is the one area where the executive gets to make that decision themselves. Maybe that’s an idea whose time has passed, but it would require Constitutional amendments to change. The very nature of pardons is that they don’t come with strings attached (unless they specifically do), certainly not the requirement of admitting guilt from the one being granted the relief.

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