Guest Column, Rockford Register Star, September 26, 1999

FALN Members Release Presidential Prerogative

P.S. Ruckman, Jr.

Curious members of the news media once asked President Clinton if he intended to seek "revenge" upon those who had pursued his impeachment. Clinton’s response was well-scripted. The President said he believed that those who seek forgiveness must themselves "be ready to forgive" Americans got a little taste of President Clinton’s forgiving side in recent weeks.

Twelve jailed members of a Puerto-Rican "nationalist group" accepted the Clinton’s offer of conditional clemency. Eleven became eligible for release within days. The remaining individual had his 55-year sentence drastically reduced. Each is a member of the F.A.L.N. (the Spanish initials for the "Armed Forces of National Liberation"). FALN carried out 150 bombings in the United States from 1974 to 1983. The bombs were placed - among other places - in police headquarters and luncheons, and six people were killed. More than eighty others were wounded. Bank robbery was another popular "protest activity" of FALN.

But Clinton’s act of forgiveness seemed unusual for other reasons. The Supreme Court has determined that the clemency power includes the power to pardon offenders or commute sentences (with, or without condition), grant general amnesties, remit fines and forfeitures, and delay sentences. The President’s conditional commutation of FALN members was, however, opposed by Justice Department officials, the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, several U.S. Attorneys, and the National Association of Police Organizations. The House of Representatives condemned Clinton’s decision by a vote of 311 to 41. The U.S. Senate jumped on the pile with a resolution that called the decision "deplorable." Ninety-five Senators (of 100) supported the resolution.

Once again, the clemency power is a "hot" topic.

It is amazing how little each generation learns from - and how much each generation forgets about - the exercise of executive clemency. Every generation gets its chance. Clemency decisions have been the related to (if not the critical feature of) some of the most salient political events in our history. Indeed, a competent review of American politics could be built around a list of clemency recipients. The Whiskey Rebels, Jacob Fries, Thomas Callandar, numerous female suffragettes, Jean LaFitte, G. Gordon Liddy, Casper Weinberger, participants in the Haymarket Riots, Patricia Hearst, Confederate statesmen and soldiers, Armand Hammer, Iva Toguri, Iran-Contra suspects, George Steinbrenner, Vietnam draft evaders, Peter Yarrow, Marcus Garvey, Eugene Debs, Jimmy Hoffa, and Richard Nixon ... all benefited from executive clemency. Jimmy Carter granted clemency to individuals who sprayed bullets in House of Representatives and another individual who attempted to assassinate President Truman. Talk about acts of "political protest!"

But, is there really anything to learn from clemency episodes which dot the discussions of every generation ? Do presidents exercise this power often? Can the president really pardon anyone ? For any reason, or no reason at all ? Are other governmental officials helpless in the face of this power ? Can we all only sit back and applaud, or complain? The answer to these questions - for the most part - is "YES."

In the last 90 years, presidents have averaged about 200 acts of clemency per year. Every attempt to restrict the president’s power has been rejected by the Supreme Court. Presidents have a perfect record in this 200-year contest. The Constitution does not require presidents to give "reasons" for clemency decisions, much less "good" reasons. Lincoln spelled-out the logic behind his decisions, but Jefferson made it a habit to pardon with no explanation whatsoever. The Annual Report of the Department of Justice simply stopped reporting the logic behind clemency decisions in 1933. When presidents did offer "explanations," there was considerable room for amusement (or anger, depending). Presidents mention due process, fairness, and new evidence. But they also mention political considerations, public relations campaigns, youth, old age, good conduct, employment prospects, family connections, ill health, Christmas sentiment and the desire to save farmers’ crops. There are no rules here. Pardons have been given to those who were "reformed," but they have also been given to "encourage reformation" or "good conduct" in other individuals! These "reasons" were often greeted with suspicion, ridicule and cries for "reform."

So, sit back and enjoy the FALN clemency controversy. It is old news in a new outfit. If a war is waged, put your money on the President. He always wins this one.