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How Presidential Pardons Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

What a Presidential Pardon Can't Do

pardon
One thing a U.S. president has yet to do is pardon himself, though Donald Trump has suggested he has the ability to do so. Al Drago/Getty Images

While a presidents' power to pardon is broad, it's not completely unlimited. For one thing, presidents can only pardon people for federal crimes, not state or local offenses. Additionally, a pardon can't be used to overturn a judgment in a civil lawsuit.

A president also doesn't have the power to interfere with a judge who imprisons someone for contempt of court. Oddly, this legal principle was established by a 1924 court case heard by Chief Justice William Taft, who himself was a former U.S. President [source: Cornell University Law School].

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Most importantly, the impeachment process, which can be used to remove presidents, members of Congress and federal judges from office, is excluded from the scope of the president's pardon power [source: NPR].

And even though President Trump has said he has the "absolute right" to pardon to himself, legal scholars are divided on whether he can. No president has tried to pardon himself while in office, so if Trump does so before Jan. 20, 2021, he will be enter uncharted waters never before tested in the courts.

But the Associated Press reported that many legal experts say it's a simple answer: no. The Constitution's text the "power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment" suggests that the Founding Fathers meant the power is to be used only someone else.

That was the reason cited in the 1974 opinion from the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, dated days before Nixon's resignation. It said "it would seem" a president could not pardon himself.

So two questions really remain: Will Trump try to pardon himself? And if he tries, will he succeed?

For more information on pardons and related topics, check out the links below.

Originally Published: Aug 9, 2007

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Sources

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