Throw Away the Key, Huckabee?

Governors are supposed to issue pardons.

Perhaps the only endearing attribute of modern American politicians is their persistence.  Reject them, defeat them, even thrown them out of office, and like an inflatable Bozo the Clown, up they pop again.  Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee - all the lovable losers of last year's presidential race have not retired, but instead redoubled their efforts.  If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!

There comes a point, though, where you really have to wonder just how much damage one guy can take.

Gov. Huckabee proved himself to be extremely adept at whipping up significant support with less than no money, famously encouraging his Iowa supporters to ride to the caucuses on billionaire Mitt Romney's chartered fleet of luxury buses but vote for Mike instead.

As an ex-Baptist minister and staunch social conservative, he got further than the liberal media would have ever dreamed.  Naturally, he suffered from the usual brickbats that any opponent of abortion and homosexual "marriage" must expect, but we're all used to that.  Far more serious were criticisms from the right: that he'd raised taxes, and that he was a squish on crime who let felons go free.

These attacks mostly died along with Huck's presidential hopes.  Then without warning, last week they returned to the fore:

Cops Sunday night were hunting a career criminal once granted clemency by former presidential contender Mike Huckabee for questioning in the coffeehouse executions of four cops in suburban Seattle.

A manhunt for Maurice Clemmons, 37, was launched hours after a gunman walked into the Forza Coffee café in Parkland, Wash., and shot each officer in the head as they were doing paperwork on their laptops.

Deja vu returns all over again: another ex-felon who received mercy from Gov. Huckabee has committed an abominable act.

Naturally, those commentators who would ordinarily be complaining about the racist wrongful imprisonment of a misunderstood victim of an unhappy childhood and racial prejudice are now demanding that Gov. Huckabee be considered an accessory to murder most foul.

The fact is, as governor, Huckabee did release an awful lot of convicted criminals.  During the presidential primaries, Breitbart reported:

Huckabee came out of nowhere a few weeks ago to overtake former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Iowa polls, despite being massively outspent and out-organized. Romney answered back with television ads criticizing Huckabee's record in Arkansas.

While guilty of cherry-picking the worst aspects of Huckabee's resume, the negative ads stuck with the facts. For example, Huckabee did grant 1,033 pardons and commutations, including for 12 convicted murderers, as Romney's ad stated. [emphasis added]

Which does seem like too many, and a pretty massive political risk as the Washington massacre underscores.

A Founding Dilemma

Unlike a soft-on-criminals liberal, Huckabee had a fairly well-thought-through response.

The Maurice Clemmons presented in a commutation request in the year 2000 was much different than the one who is being sought for the killings of the police officers.

The case before me was of a 16 year old who received a disproportionate sentence of 108 years for burglary and robbery charges. He had already served 11 years in Arkansas prison by that time, which is more time actually served than most similar cases would have netted in sentencing alone. Under Arkansas law, governors don't parole anyone. The Post Prison Transfer Board does. That board can recommend clemency, and in this case recommended by a 5-0 vote that his sentence be reduced.  This was one of 1000-1200 cases I reviewed each of the 10 ½ years as Governor. 92% of the time, any request for clemency was denied...

He was never PARDONED. Amazingly, that word has been used to describe my actions 9 years ago. He was never even considered for a pardon.  The commutation didn't release him. It made him PAROLE ELIGIBLE. He had to meet the conditions of parole for the parole board, who in fact paroled him.

In other words, Huckabee didn't make this decision on his own, but with the support of many other officials, and it was ten years ago, when Clemmons had committed far fewer crimes and seemed like a changed man - just the sort of person a commutation is meant to benefit.

Since that time, of course, he's rejected Arkansas' offer of redemption, returned to the path of evil, and has been involved with the police of many different jurisdictions other than Huckabee's.  Any one of those police departments could have put him back in jail where he increasingly clearly belonged, but chose not to.  Greater knowledge, and greater responsibility.

It's easy to snipe at pardons, commutations, and judicial mercies of any sort.  No man can truly know another's heart and criminals are by definition some of the best-practiced and most effective con men around.

Our Founding Fathers were well aware of this unavoidable problem.  Yet, when creating the Constitution, they gave the President awesome pardoning power modeled on that of governors.  In Federalist #74, Alexander Hamilton wrote:

Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.

The Founders considered undeserved pardons to be less of a problem than would be a justice system without them.  They understood that, no matter how carefully written the laws nor how justly applied by the courts, there would always be instances of punishment applied in strictest accordance with due process - and yet, still unjust for all that.

The powers of pardon and commutation provide a "human side" to Blind Justice.  A governor or president cannot harm a convicted criminal by making his sentence worse.  He only has the power of mercy to be used wherever he deems it appropriate.

Any executive who abuses this power will answer for it to the voters at the next election, or to the judgment of history.  Bill Clinton's record is and always will be blemished by his egregious pardons of fugitive plutocrat Marc Rich, remorseless Puerto Rican terrorists, and other impenitent malefactors.

Clinton's pardons were unforgivable precisely because any unbiased individual could immediately tell that the recipients didn't deserve them.  Huckabee's pardons look unforgivable now, a decade later, when some of the pardonees have returned to a life of serious crime; but could the governor, or anyone else, rightly have known that at the time?  The fact that nobody raised serious questions about them until fresh crimes were committed proves that Huckabee's decisions weren't unreasonable on their face.

Mercy, Alas, Is Too Straining

Not that this will gain him any mercy from the media.  Other politicians have learned the lesson taught by his example.  According to the San Francisco Chronicle:

On Wednesday, President Obama will issue the White House's standard hokey pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey. It goes with the job. That's good news for the lucky turkey, but not much help for the many nonviolent first offenders languishing in federal prisons because, nine months into office, Obama has yet to exercise his presidential pardon power.

According to political science Professor P.S. Ruckman Jr. of Rock Valley College in Illinois, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has taken longer to use the executive pardon and commutation power than all but four presidents - George Washington, John Adams, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Obama hasn't pardoned a single ex-offender...  [emphasis added]

Barack Obama is smart enough not to let himself get Willie Hortoned.  No crimes will be committed by a criminal Mr. Obama lets out!  Alas, we'll never hear of those whom might safely be released by a judicious use of the pardoning power but won't be.

Our criminal justice system does make mistakes, the more so nowadays as it's increasingly politicized, with "criminals" pursued by vendetta-driven politicians or caught by overly-intrusive laws.  Do we really want to push our system to a point where our leaders will be afraid even to attempt to right wrongs for fear of creating a ticking time-bomb for themselves?

Politicians should be held accountable for their actions.  Wrongfully releasing the unrepentant guilty should, indeed, bear a political price, as with Michael Dukakis; if Huckabee's decision-making process was flawed and he ignored or never saw relevant facts which would have warned him not to release some of these prisoners, it's his fault, but that hasn't yet been proven.

In ensuring that society's monsters stay safely locked up, we need to be careful not to go too far.  The four innocent police officers would be alive today had Huckabee stayed his hand; and also, hundreds of other unknowns would still be rotting in jail, instead of leading the peaceable and law-abiding lives his mercy returned to them.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
Wow, this news seems to have been GOOD for Huckabee. He's polling the best against Obama of any potential Republican challenger, almost tied with him.
December 10, 2009 12:56 PM
I doubt that the 'sentence commuting' news had anything to do with his polling. Huckabee HAS been polling high for a long time. He's very visible since he started his Fox News show last year, and his personality is very infectious.
December 10, 2009 1:13 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...