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What Are the Rules for Presidential Pardons?

The President of the United States is granted many powers under the Constitution. One of these powers is the power to give pardons, which is granted under Article II, Section 2. This section of the Constitution states that the President “…shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

Presidential pardons may be used by the President for any “offences against the United States,” meaning that the pardon power can only be used for federal offenses and not state offenses. So what is the full extent of the President’s pardon power, can the President self-pardon, and what other forms of clemency can the President grant?


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What is a pardon?

A presidential pardon excuses a person who has committed a crime from serving punishment. A pardon does not expunge, or erase, a criminal record or a finding of guilt. However, if any civil rights were lost due to the criminal conviction, those rights will be restored. 

What are the limitations of presidential pardons? Can a pardon be overturned?

The pardon power has two limitations:

  • The President cannot overturn Congress’ power of impeachment. 
  • The President cannot pardon individuals for the state crimes they committed. This power lies with state governors.  

Pardons given out by the President cannot be overturned by the courts or Congress. 

Can the President pardon him or herself?

The concept of a Presidential self-pardon has been around since Richard Nixon’s presidency. During that time, a memo from the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel held the position that a president could not self-pardon, “Under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, it would seem that the question should be answered in the negative.” 

However, this is merely a legal opinion and not actual law. Nixon did actually receive a presidential pardon, but it was from his former vice president, Gerald Ford. Nixon received a pardon for crimes that he “committed or may have committed or taken part in during January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.” Based on the exact wording of this specific pardon, Richard Nixon was essentially given immunity from criminal charges stemming from Watergate.

Does timing of presidential pardons matter?

No, the timing of a pardon does not matter. In Ex parte Garland, the Supreme Court ruled that a president can issue a pardon at any time after commission of a crime. This means that a person does not even have to be officially charged with a crime before receiving a pardon. 

What is the difference between a pardon and a commutation?

The president can also grant a commutation, which is different from a presidential pardon. A commutation is a reduction of a person’s punishment, resulting in either a reduced fine or reduced time in prison. For commutations, one’s civil rights (the right to vote, for example) are not restored. But those rights are typically restored with a pardon. 

While most of us won’t need a presidential pardon any time soon, you may have specific legal questions that you’d like to have answered. When it comes to your own legal matters, turn to Rocket Lawyer On Call® attorneys for fast and affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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