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Pardon Day: What Is a Pardon?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on September 08, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

On this day 40 years ago, President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon for any crimes he may have committed while in office.

If you're not familiar with Watergate, Nixon had been investigated and was facing impeachment proceedings for allegedly spying on various political opponents -- then trying to cover it up -- during his re-election campaign. Ford gave Nixon a "full, free, and absolute" pardon one month after replacing him in the White House, saving the ex-president from a potential criminal trial and conviction.

What exactly is a pardon, and who is entitled to one?

Pardon Is a Form of Clemency

A pardon is one form of clemency -- a privilege that is granted to certain suspects or convicts that either lessens or removes their criminal liability. Clemency is typically issued by the head executive of a jurisdiction (e.g., mayor, governor, or president), and a pardon, which often forgives all criminal liability for a person's wrongdoing, is considered the highest form of clemency.

It has been common for U.S. presidents to make pardons, and President Obama has even made a handful during his two-term presidency. A pardon, like most forms of clemency, is a privilege granted out of a leader's mercy or discretion. The History Channel reports that President Ford's pardon of Nixon was "widely condemned at the time," but it ultimately may have reset the nation's focus away from scandal and on to more pressing policy issues.

Strange and Notable Pardons

While political scholars may argue as to what effect Nixon's pardon had on Ford and even America's future, but it wasn't the only strange or noteworthy pardon in history. Consider these examples:

A pardon may have saved Nixon from criminal punishment, but it certainly doesn't necessitate a change in public opinion.

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