Monday, July 9, 2007

Is Manzullo wrong about the Libby case?

Upon my return the other day from a week of travel, I naturally devoted a little time to catching up on what I had missed in our local paper, the Rockford Register Star. The yield in that regard included this editorial concerning President Bush's commutation of Scooter Libby's prison sentence in the Valerie Plame case.

The piece included a nice statistical summary of pardons and commutations by presidents over the years and quoted Don Manzullo, the local Republican congressman as saying that Bush, with his gesture in the Libby case, "used his legal authority just as President Clinton and every other American president — except Harrison and Garfield — used to commute or pardon people they felt were wrongly convicted or sentenced.”

But there was something about Manzullo's words that vaguely bothered me as I read them. His reference to this "legal authority" under which presidents can "commute or pardon people" seemed unduly devoid of any qualification or limits.

Then, I glanced back to the second sentence of the piece, where the paper's editorial board said the commutation of the Libby sentence was regrettable, "but it is constitutional." Suddenly, that, too, had a vaguely false ring to it.

From the back of my mind came the thought that a president's power to grants pardons and commutations is not, in fact, unlimited. Another thought, however, told me to just let it go. I dreaded the prospect of having to plow through ambiguous legal opinions on the matter just to make some useless point.

But wait! The editorial cited the Constitution, but didn't quote from it. There's the problem, I thought. And sure enough, Article II, Section 2 of our national charter says the president "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment." Except in cases of impeachment.

If the acts of perjury and obstruction of justice for which Scooter Libby was convicted were intended to help guard against the impeachment of his boss, Vice President Dick Cheney, then Bush has no constitutional authority to pardon him or commute his sentence.

Most Americans probably know nothing about House Resolution 333, which was introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich in April and calls for impeachment of Cheney. That resolution has been pending since before Libby was sentenced.

Most Americans also probably know nothing about certain remarks federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald made during his final argument to the jury in the Libby trial:

"What is this case about? Is it about something bigger?...There is a cloud over the vice president . . . And that cloud remains because this defendant obstructed justice...There is a cloud over the White House. Don't you think the FBI and the grand jury and the American people are entitled to straight answers?"

Well, whether Don Manzullo realizes it or not, we now have cause to wonder whether Bush's commutation of Libby's sentence was intended to secure Libby's continued silence on matters that could lead to the impeachment of Cheney or even the president himself. (After all, a prison stretch might give Libby reason to rethink his options.)

Hence, we also have cause to wonder whether Bush's commutation of Libby's sentence was constitutional after all.

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