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Respect the power of the pardon [Commentary]

"[O]ne man appears to be a more eligible dispenser of the mercy of government, than a body of men."

— Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 74

Every politician wants a legacy — an issue or institution that evolves far beyond the official's time in public office. Sometimes, unexpected events intervene and the intended legacy items do not go according to plan. My experience is a good example of such an unplanned legacy.

Some of you will recall our administration's steadfast support for charter schools — public schools that enjoy a greater degree of autonomy than the standard public school. Out of that support emerged Maryland's first charter school law after a difficult fight with a union-dominated General Assembly. The subsequent success of these institutions in Maryland and across the country would be my legacy issue — or so I thought.

It was also during this time that a lady by the name of Margaret "Margy" Love was promoting my aggressive use of executive clemency power. A Democrat, Ms. Love had been pardon attorney for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the Justice Department until the infamous Bill Clinton/Mark Rich pardon (she opposed it) led to her resignation. She returned to private practice and established a successful pardons practice in Washington, D.C. It was during this time that our well-publicized criminal justice reform program caught her eye to a degree that she wrote, "It appears that the only two incumbent chief executives who approach their pardoning responsibilities with any amount of proper respect are Governor Robert Ehrlich of Maryland and President Josiah Bartlett of The West Wing," a reference to actor Martin Sheen's character on NBC's hit drama.

Such praise promoted our program to a wider audience — and began a great collaboration with a wonderful woman.

Margy's appreciation followed what was by then a regular process in Maryland, wherein I would conduct monthly reviews of petitions for relief sent through the Maryland Parole Commission. Some of the cases were easy — a minor offense from years ago that was now thwarting employment opportunities. Others were quite difficult, especially "lifer reviews" wherein my decision could lead to parole for those incarcerated for many years.

We understood some media types would view our process with suspicion — an attitude not confined to the press. Friendly members of the General Assembly and even senior staff questioned why we would indulge a high risk operation (many recalled how the Willie Horton episode derailed Mike Dukakis in 1988) that promised few political rewards.

Yet such obstacles did not slow us down. I had always believed that pardons and commutations were part of the job description — an extraordinary power that allowed the executive to even the scales of an imperfect criminal justice system. And this we accomplished, compiling a four-year total of 444 case reviews and 228 grants of relief — a record that few governors of either party could match.

Fast forward to the present when a fair percentage of my time is devoted to the cause of criminal justice reform and the reemergence of executive pardon power.

The centerpiece is my working partnership with the Columbus School of Law at Catholic University. Here, law students research and draft petitions on behalf of partnership clients. A second aspect of the program is to educate governors-elect and their senior staffs as to the importance of reform initiatives during the critical transition period before taking office.

The most interesting aspect of this legacy experience is the diversity of groups that sponsor my presentations. Over the past few years, I have spoken at New York University Law School, The New School, The Clinton Library, The University of Arkansas Law School and the George Soros sponsored "Open Societies Forum" — not exactly a murderers' row of conservative opinion, but they were interested enough in a critical issue to welcome a Republican into their midst. (Only a September speech in Denver to a Koch Brothers sponsored "Right on Crime" dinner broke my streak of left wing audiences.)

Finally, what has evolved into a "purple" issue (what other cause could bring the Kochs and George Soros together?) has been pushed more aggressively by Republican governors than their Democratic counterparts. Some attribute this to a "Nixon goes to China" syndrome, wherein GOP governors with traditionally conservative records on crime and punishment feel more flexibility than their liberal colleagues preoccupied with the lasting specter of Mr. Horton and charges of being "soft on crime."

Executives will play a dominant role in the reform movement. But legislatures must reform '80s and '90s era sentencing laws and spend money on re-entry programs. Here, serious thinkers from both sides can come together — for a change. America will be a more just place for it. Now that's a legacy.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.


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