I think Jeralyn Merritt gets the Huckabee pardon/clemency issue about right.
We do need a serious debate in this country about the use of the pardon power and executive clemency. It isn’t used nearly often enough, and when it is, it’s usually used for the wrong reasons. That is, it’s generally used for political patronage, or to show mercy or redemption for people who are guilty, but who have shown they’re rehabilitated. It’s rarely used for the reason the founders granted it to the president (and ostensibly, why state constitutions grant it to governors): as a check on wrongful convictions and unjust applications of the law that may have fallen through the criminal justice system. There are some governors in this country who have never issued a pardon, and have publicly said they have no plans to. President Bush has been particularly stingy with the pardon. This from a guy who seems pretty eager to exercise all manner of other presidential powers.
As Alexander Hamilton (by no means a limited government guy) explained in Federalist No. 74, justifying the pardon power: “The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”
Unfortunately, the only time use of the pardon or clemency power enters the presidential debate is on those rare occasions when a candidate screwed up, and showed mercy to someone who went on to commit a serious crime (in Huckabee’s case, he seems to have exerted behind-the-scenes influence to help win a sentence commutation for Wayne DuMond, who committed a rape and murder after his release), or when a candidate gets caught pardoning a crony. Huckabee deserves some scorn for using his powers for political patronage, as well as for pardoning or commuting the sentences of people who may not have deserved it, but were lucky enough to have a personal connection to him. His obfuscation about his role in the DuMond case is also regrettable.
But generally speaking, a governor’s wise but copious use of pardon and clemency powers deserves praise, not scorn. Huckabee’s frequent commutation of cruelly long drug sentences is particularly admirable, given the law-and-order proclivities of his party.
It’s typical, cynical politics that a power designed to be a check on injustice and imprisoning the innocent usually only makes the news when something goes wrong (like DuMond), or when it’s used to free suspects or convicts fortunate enough to walk in powerful circles (see Scooter Libby, or Marc Rich).