In deploying his pardon power freely and using the Bible to justify family separation, the president is exactly the sort of ruler that Enlightenment thinkers feared.
The heartbreaking scenes on the southern border seem a world away from recent presidential pardons. Sobbing children and bereft parents have nothing in common with Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D’Souza and, most recently, the Oregon ranchers Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, who had been convicted of arson in 2016 and whom President Trump pardoned on Tuesday. Yet both come down to a relationship between justice and mercy that has a long history — and a cautionary moral for the president.
Family separation shows justice without mercy. The pardon power displays mercy in the name of justice. The administration cites the biblical injunction to obey the powers that be as one explanation for their zero-tolerance policy on immigration. With regard to immigration, it seems, there can be no discretion. By contrast, presidential pardons show how extensive discretion can be, because the Constitution gives the president “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in case of impeachment.”
.. Most Enlightenment thinkers were uneasy about the pardoning power. The two greatest oracles for the Constitution’s framers, the French philosopher Montesquieu and the English lawyer William Blackstone, both attacked it. “Clemency is the characteristic of monarchs,”
.. The framers argued that “without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel,” as Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 74. This was particularly true in “season of insurrection or rebellion,” Hamilton continued, “when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquillity of the commonwealth.”
.. With the ratification of the Constitution, George Washington received an array of powers many European monarchs might have envied. The president could veto legislation — something no British monarch had done since 1707
.. He has used the pardoning power as one of his few unfettered prerogatives, in just the undemocratic way Enlightenment thinkers feared. For them, authority flowed from the people, not from God; the pardon was a residue of divine right. When Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites Paul’s epistle to the Romans to justify family separation, he not only revives an argument used to defend absolutism and slavery but also implies there is still a power above the law defined by the Constitution.
.. The president can casually exercise his discretionary power to pardon Mr. Arpaio, who abused prisoners in his care, but then claims he is powerless to end a policy worthy of Sheriff Joe himself.