Governor Commutes Death Sentences, Throws Tantrum – God of the Machine
Jan 112003

It’s a glorious day for Death Row inmates in Illinois, as Governor Ryan commuted every death sentence today.

“The death penalty in Illinois is not imposed fairly or uniformly,” said Ryan, but is often based on geography, race, nationality or economic status.

“The legislature couldn’t reform it,” the 69-year-old governor said. “Lawmakers won’t repeal it. And I won’t stand for it.”

“So there,” continued the governor, adding, in reply to criticisms that he had arrogantly substituted his own judgment for those of juries and courts, “I’m rubber and you’re glue and everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Seriously, I oppose the death penalty, but everyone should object to this circumvention of the law regardless of his views on the matter.

  6 Responses to “Governor Commutes Death Sentences, Throws Tantrum”

  1. The law gives the governor the power to pardon or commute sentences when he thinks it is in the interest of justice. That is exactly what Ryan did. How this is a "circumvention of the law" escapes me.

  2. It is a flagrant abuse of the pardon power, as an analogy ought to make clear. Suppose a governor decided nobody belonged in jail, and pardoned the entire prison population at the end of his term. This would clearly be an attempt to arrogate to oneself, through the pardon power, the powers of judges and juries. It would be an abuse, in other words. How is the actual case any different?

    Ryan, incidentally, also released three convicted murderers, on dubious exculpatory evidence. That may have been stupid, but it’s a legitimate use of the power to pardon.

  3. Aaron, a governor, as the chief executive of his state, either has the power to pardon people convicted in his state at his discretion or he doesn’t. As it happens, they do. If your hypothetical example were to take place, were some governor to go nuts and attempt to pardon all prisoners — well, I’m not sure what would happen, because for all I know it actually would be legal, but I can’t see state legislators or judges allowing it to happen.

    What Governor Ryan did in pardoning en masse strikes me as straddling the gray area between what we might consider "abuse" of his powers. At any rate, in a democracy, radical actions like this tend to have their own blowback, both positive and negative. As someone who has always been against the death penalty, I’m glad to see it.

    BTW, Aaron, since when are you against the death penalty? Has it become cruel and unusual to you?

  4. My point is that my hypothetical would be legal. If that’s an abuse then so is what Ryan actually did. Private executives are constantly said to be "abusing their power" when doing perfectly legal things, and justifiably so. Can’t this also be true of elected officials? Your approval of Ryan’s action shows that your overriding interest is in having your own preferences enacted. This won’t do.

    Capital punishment cannot be "cruel and unusual." The Fifth Amendment specifically refers to capital crimes. It would be pretty silly for the Eighth Amendment to deny that there are such things, wouldn’t it? Except for the argument from error, which in my view has enough weight by itself to carry the day, all of the usual arguments against the death penalty are dreadful. But "cruel and unusual" is the worst of them.

  5. Aaron’s argument by analogy that Governor Ryan’s commutation of all death sentences is immoral suffers from two defects:

    1) Aaron merely asserts that a blanket pardon for all prisoners would "clearly be an attempt to arrogate… the powers of judges and juries." I agree that such a decision would be dangerous to the innocent citizenry and therefore substantively a terrible choice, but it’s not obvious to me why it constitutes an inappropriate arrogation of power. If Governor Ryan has unlimited pardoning power, Aaron must offer some objective standard for what constitutes legitimate use of that power before he can say which pardon decisions might constitute abuse.

    It seems perfectly reasonable to argue that any non-corrupt use of the pardon is legitimate. By non-corrupt, I mean that the Governor was not bribed or otherwise illicitly influenced to issue the pardon. If the Governor truly believes that someone is wrongfully imprisoned, it could be argued he is justified in pardoning that person (and perhaps morally obligated to do so).

    Note that I am not necessarily endorsing the above position, but it is serious enough to necessitate a response.

    2) Even if we assume that there are potentially unjustified uses of pardons, I don’t see why the ‘pardon everybody’ scenario and the decision to commute death sentences must be in the same class. Aaron asks, "how [are the cases] any different?" Let’s see:

    A. In the hypothetical case, it is hard to see a moral justification for a blanket pardon. In the actual case, Governor Ryan clearly believed that the danger of putting innocent people to death was to great to ignore, and he knew that an exhaustive investiagtion of all death penalty cases would be difficult, expensive, and subject to the same errors and indifference which had led to the problematic convictions in the first place.

    B. In the hypo, dangerous felons would be released onto the street. In the actual case, death sentences were commuted to life inprisonment. The state has the power to prevent any of those individuals from ever being freed.

    Let’s flip Aaron’s argument around. Other than the fact that both the hypo and the actual case involve blanket pardons, how are they at all similar? And where is it written that blanket pardons are inherently wrong? Our government issues them all the time. Tax amnesty, blanket naturalization of illegal immigrants, the list goes on.

  6. Chris asks for an objective standard; fair enough. It is an abuse of the pardon power to wield it for a class and not a case. Inmates are a class: inmates on Death Row are a class: inmates who may be innocent are not a class. One could argue, pedantically, that innocent inmates are indeed a class, but the difference is easy to understand — pardoning the innocent requires analysis of the individual case and what Governor Ryan did does not.

    Chris dislikes my hypo regardless. But Governor Ryan’s "sincere belief" in his rectitude in no way distinguishes his case from my hypo. Many people believe, sincerely, that everyone ought to be let out of jail — the late William Kunstler, for one. (I grant that such people are unlikely to be elected governor.) I of course agree that it is more dangerous, and more stupid, to release convicted murderers than to commute their sentences to life imprisonment. This, however, is a difference of degree, not kind.

    Finally, I do not object to blanket amnesties, arrived at by legitimate means. The case we are discussing, an act of the executive in an attempt to circumvent the wishes of the legislature, is a different matter entirely.

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