Later this month, President Obama will hold a press conference outside the White House and present the turkey that he’s decided to pardon from being executed. It’s meant as a light moment during the holidays, a wholesome White House publicity event akin to the Easter Egg roll. The President usually cracks a few jokes and the press chuckles. (It provided some good material for an episode of the West Wing – the fictional President Bartlet asked before a pardoning, “Won’t I get a reputation for being soft on turkeys?”)
However, as an attorney who represents pardon candidates before the Illinois Governor, I’m not fond of the message the turkey clemency sends to the public. It represents what critics point to as a potential problem with executive pardons – the possibility for the power to be applied arbitrarily. Out of the many turkeys sentenced to death each year, the White House selects one at random to be spared.
This is not how actual pardons are decided. The vast majority of granted pardons, whether on the state or federal level, are for individuals who served their debt to society and have since spent years rehabilitating themselves. By issuing a pardon, the executive office decides to grant them forgiveness for their act, and a second chance with a clean slate. In Illinois, pardon petitions are carefully considered first by the Prisoner Review Board, and then by Governor Quinn and his staff.
So this Thanksgiving, when the President pardons a turkey, just keep in mind the process works a little differently for our non-feathered citizens.