The Corner

White House

On Self-Pardons and Pardons for Future Crimes

President Trump and his lawyers got everyone talking about whether the president can pardon himself, even though it is a remote prospect: Since it’s not even clear that a sitting president can be indicted, the most natural occasion for a self-pardon might well not arise.

I was set to write a quick post making the point that there isn’t much debate over whether a president can pardon anyone’s future crimes–basically everyone agrees he can’t–even though in crucial respects the arguments for and against this power would be very similar to the ones that are made in the lively debate over self-pardons. But in starting to look into this matter, I found out that Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University, had made the point pithily a year ago in an argument against self-pardons:

The word “pardon” means something inherently bilateral, something that a sovereign bestows upon a subject. Consider more colloquially that you can beg someone else’s pardon, but you never seek or receive one from yourself. While there is admittedly no explicit limitation on self-pardons, there is no need for one, because a self-pardon is by definition not a “pardon.” Other examples show that the pardon power is subject to inherent limitations like this. For instance, the law is clear that a pardon cannot be prospective — it can only reach offenses committed before the pardon is issued — but that limit is not spelled out in the Constitution either. It is implicit in the definition of a “pardon” as opposed to a suspension of the law.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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