The Meaning of a Pardon

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Editor’s Note: This article was written some time ago by Jan LaRue, former-General Counsel for Concerned Women for America. The wisdom found herein is as timely today as the day she wrote it. 

I knew as an attorney that a pardon is only effective if the one pardoned accepts it. In light of Good Friday, this past weekend I did some research on the word “pardon” in the Supreme Court data base.

The Court’s holding in U.S. v. Wilson, 32 U.S. 150 (1833), illustrates to a much lesser degree the importance of a pardon and what it takes to make it effective.

When a governor or the President of the United States, as in the Wilson case, pardons a prisoner, including one condemned to death, no one else is required to take the condemned’s place. “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.” (Romans 5:7)

Christ willingly took our place on the Cross and paid the penalty to secure our pardon and release us from the sentence of spiritual death. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5: 8)

There is a compelling similarity between man’s pardon and God’s. Both require that the one pardoned must accept the pardon and plead it in the court that has jurisdiction.

On May 27, 1830, a federal judge sentenced George Wilson to death after he pleaded guilty to several counts of violating federal mail statutes, including placing the life of the mail carrier in jeopardy. The carrier was not injured. James Porter, Wilson’s co-defendant, was hanged on July 2 of the same year.

President Andrew Jackson pardoned Wilson in response to a plea from Wilson’s influential friends. Charges against Wilson were then brought in a second court, which allegedly involved the same acts that Wilson had pleaded guilty to in the first court. Nonetheless, Wilson pleaded guilty and the prosecutor moved the court to pronounce judgment on Wilson.

The judge had heard about Wilson’s pardon from President Jackson. Instead of granting the prosecutor’s motion for judgment, the judge expressed the “propriety of inquiring as to the effect of the pardon” to the conviction at hand.

On the next day, counsel for Wilson appeared in court “and on his behalf waived and declined any advantage or protection which might be supposed to arise from the pardon referred to.” Put simply, Wilson refused to plead his pardon. It would have protected him from being placed in jeopardy twice, if the acts were the same as those that he had pleaded guilty to in the first court. He thereby waived his Fifth Amendment right under the U.S. Constitution.

The case went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit where the judges were divided on the questions of double jeopardy and the effect of the pardon. They ordered the questions certified to the Supreme Court for decision.

Mr. Taney, attorney general for the United States, argued that the charges didn’t violate the double jeopardy clause and that the pardon could not apply because the prisoner had not brought it before the court. No counsel appeared for Wilson.

The Court did not decide the double jeopardy issue because it found the appellate record incomplete. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the majority opinion in answer to the question of the effect of an executive pardon:

A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. It is the private, though official act of the executive magistrate, delivered to the individual for whose benefit it is intended, and not communicated officially to the court. It is a constituent part of the judicial system, that the judge sees only with judicial eyes, and knows nothing respecting any particular case, of which he is not informed judicially. A private deed, not communicated to him, whatever may be its character, whether a pardon or release, is totally unknown and cannot be acted on. The looseness which would be introduced into judicial proceedings, would prove fatal to the great principles of justice, if the judge might notice and act upon facts not brought regularly into the cause. Such a proceeding, in ordinary cases, would subvert the best established principles, and overturn those rules which have been settled by the wisdom of ages. Id. at 160-161.

Wilson knew he had been pardoned but knowing wasn’t enough. His counsel knew about it too. The judges knew about it but were powerless because Wilson wouldn’t accept it or plead it before the court. God secured our pardon but it too must be accepted and asserted by the condemned :

The condemned has to plead guilty as one who has violated God’s Law. One violation is sufficient for condemnation (James 2:11). The scale is tipped to guilty.
“For the LORD is our Judge, The LORD is our Lawgiver, The LORD is our King; He will save us” (Isaiah 33:22). God gave the law that condemns us. He is the King who granted the pardon. He is the Judge and He’s aware of the pardon He has granted.
The condemned has “an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” ready to plead him guilty and assert the pardon in God’s court (1 John 2:1).
Is there a concern about double jeopardy? There is but one Sovereign God. “Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22).Are all of the charges against us covered? When Jesus died on Good Friday, how many of your sins were in the future? “And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them having triumphed over them through Him” (Colossians 2:13-15). A court once had to decide the meaning of “all.” It “includes everything and excludes nothing.”

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the LORD and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)

If you haven’t done so, accept the pardon. If you have, thank Him anew by spreading the Good News of Good Friday and the empty tomb.

Originally published: 4/13/2006