The piece reprinted below is the first part of Bernadette Meyler’s contribution to a Symposium published by the Stanford Law Review on her book Theaters of Pardoning. It is as cogent a guide to understanding President Trump’s pardoning practices, and how they differ from those of his predecessors, as anything else we have seen. If, as Prof. Meyler argues, the message sent by Trump’s pardons is “the rejection of law,” it would be ironic (though entirely welcome) if they prompted Congress to reroute into the legal system much of the business heretofore committed exclusively to presidential pardoning, notably relief from the collateral consequences of a federal conviction. Then presidents could pardon to their heart’s delight, without worrying about the inherent unfairness of their actions.
“Trump’s Theater of Pardoning”
by Bernadette Meyler
In many ways, President Trump has returned to a performance of pardoning more familiar to early modern England than to contemporary America. Largely eschewing bureaucratic processes, Trump has taken advantage of the political theater that pardoning can provide. Like some of the real-life and fictional kings who appear in my book, Theaters of Pardoning, Trump has also called law and legal regimes into question through his pardons, and, in doing so, asserted his own impunity from law. Ignoring the common law restrictions that had accreted around pardoning, Trump has chosen to interpret his power as absolute, unfettered by norms like refraining from judging in one’s own case and forgiving but not forgetting. And this is only the story of Trump’s formal pardons. As Kenji Yoshino’s essay in this Symposium elaborates, Trump’s numerous revisions of history represent even more pervasive efforts at enacting amnesty and oblivion.
A new article in the Stanford Law Review discusses the radically different forms of punishment in the United States and Europe, which its author attributes at least in part to differing moral visions of wrongdoing and wrongdoers. In Two Cultures of Punishment, Joshua Kleinfeld argues that while Americans tend to regard serious offenders as “morally deformed people rather than ordinary people who have committed crimes,” European cultures “affirm even the worst offenders’ claims to social membership and rights.”
Kleinfeld illustrates this “divergent moral vision” by the very different approach European countries take to collateral consequences. (The other two areas discussed in the article are lengthy prison terms and capital punishment). Whereas in this country people convicted of crime are subject to a lifetime of legal restrictions and social stigma analogous to older forms of civil death, and are effectively consigned to a kind of “internal exile,” in Europe people who have committed a crime benefit from numerous measures to encourage their reintegration.
Last week was an exciting one for proponents of the expansion of college opportunities for people who are currently incarcerated or who have criminal records. Two reports were released that propose strategies to break the cycle of recidivism, promote public safety, and de-escalate mass incarceration by opening up post-secondary educational opportunities. It is fitting that both reports come at a time when America is reflecting on the events of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, fifty years ago, and envisioning where the momentum of Black Lives Matter will take us. It is the intersection of an historic civil rights struggle, the human rights movement that confronts “mass criminalization” and the racial divide in the U.S. today.
The Stanford Criminal Justice Center and the Warren Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law issued a report from the Renewing Communities Initiative, Degrees of Freedom: Expanding College Opportunities for Currently and Formerly Incarcerated Californians. It was released just days after the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in cooperation with the Education from the Inside Out Coalition (EIO Coalition), issued its report, Boxed Out: Criminal History Screening and College Application Attrition, the subject of an earlier post on March 4, 2015.