Welcome Rumblings Of A Wider Drug War Clemency

Do opinion columns get results? Last month I wrote an op-ed for Bloomberg View chiding President Obama for not using his clemency powers more broadly on behalf of inmates serving insanely long drug sentences. Now the New York Times reports:

The Justice Department wants low-level drug criminals who were sentenced under tough laws from the days of the crack epidemic to ask the president for early release from prison.

In an unprecedented move, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole asked defense lawyers on Thursday to help the government locate prisoners and encourage them to apply for clemency. The clemency drive is part of the Obama administration’s effort to undo a disparity that flooded the nation’s prison system and disproportionately affected black men.

“Bypassing Congress” is suddenly the White House slogan of the hour, but as Eugene Kontorovich points out at the Volokh Conspiracy, that loose term tends to confound two entirely different kinds of executive action. It’s fully consistent with our constitutional design for the president to act unilaterally in exercising what are known as inherent executive powers along with some range of statutory executive powers legitimately delegated by Congress. Since the American Revolution and indeed long before, executive clemency has been among the most widely recognized of inherent executive powers, a subject of very broad discretion. For a president, that’s some of the most solid ground he can stand on, constitutionally speaking; he gets onto thin ice when he tries to use unilateral executive action to accomplish essentially legislative goals, as by decreeing changes in labor law that Congress is unwilling to enact.

Last month, I wrote:

It’s baffling that over a quarter-century in which presidents of both parties have relentlessly sought to assert powers the Constitution never granted them they should be so meek about using the pardon powers that our constitutional system unquestionably gives them.

It’s entirely consistent to insist on applying close constitutional scrutiny when the president decrees, say, higher minimum wages at federal contractors, even as we applaud this week’s progress toward the wise and merciful use of executive clemency powers well-settled since the time of the Founding.