Friday, July 27, 2007

Let Justice be Undone

George Bush, Jr. commuted the sentence of Irving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr., thereby supposedly incurring the ire of both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats complained that Junior was simply making good on a deal; Republicans insisted that Scooter should have a full pardon. Wasn’t it punishment enough that he had to pay a $250,400 fine, that he may never be able to practice law again, that he may face probation? And didn’t Bill Clinton grant a bunch of pardons just before he left office?

Within days of his sentencing, Libby had paid his fine; and commutation may exempt him from probation. What bothers me, however, is the matter of his license. Exactly what kind of law does “Scooter” practice?

Yes, Clinton issued a lot of pardons before he left office. But who were the beneficiaries? He did not pardon Leonard Peltier, who certainly deserves it.* He did, however pardon Marc Rich, a billionaire international commodities trader. In 1983, Rich was indicted for tax evasion and for trading with Iran during the hostage crisis. His ex-wife had donated to the Democratic Party and the Clinton Library, but the Republicans were curiously uninterested. They insisted Rich was innocent. In any case, he really didn’t need Clinton’s mercy. He’d been living splendidly abroad since his indictment; he just couldn’t enter the United States without facing possible arrest. The pardon ended his torment.

Naturally, Rich had top-notch representation; his attorney was Irving Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jr. When Clinton issued the pardon, Libby was on the phone congratulating poor Mr. Rich.

Rich, incidentally, had been indicted by then-U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani. Today, Giuliani is a 9/11 hero and a Republican presidential candidate who agrees with Bush’s decision to commute the sentence of Rich’s lawyer. Libby, you may recall, was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame case, where the identity of a covert C.I.A. operative following evidence on weapons traffic was disclosed to retaliate against her husband because he contradicted the administration’s claim of attempted Iraqi uranium purchases prior to the 2003 invasion. Thankfully, Libby didn’t lie about a sexual indiscretion, or he would have been in real trouble.

Libby has clearly travelled in powerful circles for a long time, so it’s hard to know exactly how many backs are being scratched here. Unfortunately, that’s often the case. To “heal the nation” three decades ago, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for any crimes Nixon might have committed while in office. (Believe me, the list is longer than “Watergate.”) And out-going President George Bush, Sr. pardoned Caspar W. Weinberger and others for the Iran-hostage-contra-cocaine operation.

Luckily, they weren’t caught in any lies about sexual indiscretions, or they might have been thrown in the pokey.

Do Presidents ever pardon deserving petitioners? Of course, although I fear that practice is in decline. Do Presidents ever abuse their power? We elect them in the hope that they will do what is right. But their conception of right and ours often vary.

The Libby controversy has brought renewed attention to presidential powers to override court decisions or by-pass the judicial system entirely. A tit-for-tat argument about which President freed the most people misses the point. Who is getting off the hook? By pardoning Rich and commuting Libby’s sentence, didn’t Bill and George serve the same constituency?

* Peltier was falsely convicted of killing two F.B.I. agents on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in 1975. See In the Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen.


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