Executive Clemency or Bureaucratic Discretion? Two Models of the Pardons Process

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 7-30-2007


This article examines the use of the president's pardon power from 1953 to 2000. Two different models are used to describe the pardons process: a presidential model and an agency model. The presidential model takes a top-down approach to the pardons process by viewing the pardon power as a resource that the president can use to advance specific policy goals. In contrast, the agency model views the pardons process as a bottom-up process, with the preferences of officials within the Department of Justice as the key determinant of the number of pardons issued. This article empirically tests both of these models and finds that the president's control over the pardons process is limited by officials within the Justice Department and the actions of past presidents. This is illustrated by an in-depth case study of President Bill Clinton's controversial use of the pardon power.