If there is one virtue voters had every reason to expect from Barack Obama, it is a strong sense of social justice. Yet somehow the one-time community organizer has dropped that ball when it comes to the exercise of his constitutional power to pardon individuals who have committed federal offenses. With only one sentence commutation and 22 pardons (for offenders who served their time), Obama has the lowest pardon rate of any modern president.
This week Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz informed the Department of Justice that the president’s pardon attorney, Ronald Rodgers, withheld information that could have led to the release of Clarence Aaron, who was sentenced to life without parole for a first-time nonviolent drug offense in 1993 when he was 24 years old. Horowitz referred the issue to the deputy attorney general for possible administrative action. A Justice Department spokesman informed me that has the department “initiated a process to amend the relevant provisions.”
No hurry. Aaron’s not going anywhere.
Maybe it doesn’t bother the president that, because of a dysfunctional sentencing system, a black college student who screwed up and got involved in the drug trade will never walk free again.
Horowitz found that Rodgers’ conduct “fell substantially short of the high standards to be expected of Department of Justice employees and of the duty that he owed to the president of the United States.” But maybe this administration wants to be duped.
Aaron’s situation, however, did matter to George W. Bush. The previous pardon attorney had recommended that Aaron’s clemency petition be denied. Bush asked his Justice Department to review Aaron’s petition in 2007.
Rodgers then checked with the prosecuting U.S. attorney’s office and the judge who sentenced Aaron. In a change of thinking, the prosecutor recommended that Aaron’s sentence be reduced so that he could be out in 2014; the judge was OK with an immediate commutation.
If passed on, that information would have given the White House a green light to commute Aaron’s sentence. Instead, the report found, Rodgers recommended against clemency as he inaccurately represented the U.S. attorney’s statement and “used ambiguous language” on the judge’s new position.
Will there be any consequences? Political scientist P.S. Ruckman blogged that Obama should get a new pardon attorney as Rodgers’ “only noticeable talent … is the dull bureaucratic energy to deny applications, by the thousands.”
Aaron’s attorney Margaret C. Love argues that the president should commute Aaron’s sentence immediately.
Good luck with that. Earlier this month, Love was on a bipartisan panel hosted by The Heritage Foundation; some panelists argued that presidents should go outside their administrations and appoint bipartisan panels to issue pardon recommendations. Imagine. The most powerful man in the free world has an unfettered power — to show mercy, no less — and Beltway types think the only way he can exercise it is by passing it off to others. With this administration, they may be right.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is email@example.com