We’ve talked about pardons, and other forms of executive clemency, before. Since we talked about ‘sealing’ last time, though, we thought we’d revisit the topic briefly.
A pardon is not the same thing as a declaration of your innocence. In fact, as stated in Roberts v. the State of New York, an 1899 decision of New York’s Court of Appeals, “[a] pardon proceeds not upon the theory of innocence, but implied guilt. If there was no guilt, theoretically at least, there would be no basis for pardon.” The court pointed out that it’s the judicial branch that decides whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty The executive branch (a governor or a president) has no say whatever in the matter.
A well-known example of a pardon – and its legal effect – is United States v. Arpaio. It was covered extensively by the press, including, for instance, the Washington Post. Arpaio was pardoned after a federal conviction for criminal contempt. He then went back to the court that had convicted him and demanded that the court “vacate all orders and dismiss his case with prejudice.” The court, in its decision, refusing to dismiss the case, summarized the legal situation as follows:
The Court found Defendant guilty of criminal contempt. The President issued the pardon. Defendant accepted. The pardon undoubtedly spared Defendant from any punishment that might otherwise have been imposed. It did not, however, “revise the historical facts” of this case.
So what, exactly, does a pardon do for you? Well, one of its main purposes, per the Roberts case, is to “relieve [the defendant] from future or further punishment.” This would, for instance, allow a jailed defendant to get out. It also, in Sheriff Arpaio’s case, prevented the court from putting the defendant in.
And the New York Times recently reported an additional effect of a pardon. Thanks to a pardon, a veteran – a former green card holder – deported 15 years ago because of a criminal conviction has been allowed to return to the United States.
A pardon, then, is not everything you might have thought it was. But if you can get one (and remember, it’s very hard – almost impossible – to get one) it certainly can’t hurt.