Opinion | Blagojevich doesn’t deserve a commutation

By Matthew Krauter, Columnist

President Trump exercised his pardon powers on Feb. 18 to commute the 14-year sentence of disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Such a move is both politically unpalatable and a poor usage of the pardon power.

Trump had every right to commute the sentence of Blagojevich. Article 2 of the Constitution grants the president “Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

Though I have the utmost respect and admiration for the finely wrought system of checks and balances established throughout our government, the pardon power has always rested uneasy with me.

Why should the president be able to single-handedly overturn a conviction delivered by a jury? Such a jury should only ever convict when there is evidence beyond a doubt the person is guilty. To allow an individual to overturn such decisions unilaterally seems rather unbalanced and void of justice.

Fortunately, the pardon power receives some justification in Federalist No. 69 and 74. In 74, Alexander Hamilton makes it very clear how important he viewed this power of the president, writing, “humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible limited or embarrassed.”

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Hamilton went on to observe that criminal codes, or laws, may occasionally deliver judgement too harsh and sometimes a single man may be best fit to the “mitigation of the rigor of the law.” This approach also strides to avoid a mob mentality in the justice system.

The main objection to the pardon during the drafting of the Constitution was related to the prospect of the president being capable of pardoning treason. Many objectors believed such a pardon should require congressional input due to the acute interest the state has in such cases.

The answer given in 74 is that treason is most likely to be related to sedition. He feared by giving congress a say in the matter “we might expect to see the representation of the people tainted with the same spirit which had given birth to the offense.” 

Pardoning would be an essential tool of reunification after a sedition. “In seasons of insurrection or rebellion, there are often critical moments, when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquility in the commonwealth.”

This foresight by Hamilton was realized at the end of the civil war when President Johnson granted amnesty and pardons to “former Confederates who pledged loyalty to the Union and agreed to support the 13th Amendment.” This was a widely controversial move among members of Congress and likely motivated Johnson’s impeachment.

Johnson’s pardon was an essential act of unity to bring the nation together. This is what Hamilton envisioned. Such unity is completely absent in the commutation of Blagojevich.

Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 for 18 counts of corruption, including attempting to sell President Obama’s Illinois Senate seat for personal gain and withholding funding from a children’s hospital in return for campaign contributions.

Illinoisans should be outraged at this commutation. The Illinois House Republicans, including Representative Rodney Davis of IL-13, released a statement condemning the president’s actions; saying “Blagojevich is the face of public corruption in Illinois… we shouldn’t let those who breached the public trust off the hook.”

This is exactly right. Blagojevich destroyed public trust in the state government. What he did was disgusting and he deserves no sympathy for his sentence.

The president appears to not understand the gravity of Blagojevich’s crimes, tweeting “Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat. He served 8 years in prison, with many remaining. He paid a big price.”

It doesn’t matter if he didn’t successfully sell the seat. The mere attempt to sell it is sufficient for full condemnation. Blagojevich’s guilt was caught on tape, saying “‘I’m not just giving it up for (expletive) nothing.’”

Perhaps the president believed he was making a bipartisan appeal by commuting Blagojevich, a Democrat, but I have yet to see many Democrats support the action and I would seriously question those who do.

It is inconceivable that a president who ran a campaign on “draining the swamp” and whose defense in the impeachment charges consisted of fighting corruption at large would take no issue with commuting the poster boy for corruption.

Any intellectually honest person should denounce Blagojevich’s commutation as completely inappropriate. Trump would be wise to follow the example of Hamilton and Johnson in the future and use the pardon to promote unity, not corruption.

Matthew is a sophomore in LAS.

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