How Presidential Pardons Work

One pardon has become an annual tradition -- the pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey. President George W. Bush pardons Stars the turkey, saving the bird from a death sentence. See more pictures of the presidents.
Courtesy of Susan Walsh/Associated Press

President George W. Bush's decision to commute the prison sentence of vice-presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby has made people wonder how President Bush could simply wave his magic wand -- and poof! -- Libby no longer has to set foot inside a prison cell. After all, Libby was tried and convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice.

The answer is simple. Because he can. President Bush, like every president before him, has the unique ability to override the justice system, release anyone he chooses from paying a fine, and return a person to the state of innocence he had before he ever committed a crime.

The president isn't required to explain or justify his actions to you, me, Congress or anyone else for that matter.The power to pardon is left solely to the discretion of the president, and cannot be reviewed or overturned by any of the other branches of government. So why do presidential pardons raise so many eyebrows?

Perhaps it's because, in our government of separated and balanced branches, this unique power stands out like a sore thumb -- a president in full-pardon swing more resembles a king than an elected official. In fact, the basis of the presidential pardon can be found in the royal Prerogative of English Kings (more on that later).

So where does this power come from? Why did it make it into the Constitution? What does it do and how exactly does it work? In this article, we'll answer these questions and look at some noteworthy presidential pardons.

More to Explore