How many times have you heard the words “presidential pardon” in the last several weeks? Of course, all presidents pardon citizens during their terms, but it seems to be a hot-button issue lately. And along with all the pardon news comes questions about how much power the president actually has. One interesting question people have been bringing up is whether someone can refuse a presidential pardon if they are so inclined. This issue has come up during our nation’s history, and the answer is yes.
Here are two examples of people refusing pardons. One took place in the 1830s under President Andrew Jackson. Two men named George Wilson and James Porter and a co-conspirator were sentenced to death in 1830. Porter was executed relatively quickly, but Wilson was pardoned by Andrew Jackson before he could be executed, but Wilson refused the deal, possibly due to a misunderstanding about other crimes that he was due to be sentenced for.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1833 that “A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered, and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.” Interestingly, the details of what ultimately happened to George Wilson are not known.
Another case in which an American refused a presidential pardon took place in 1915. A city editor for the New York Tribune named George Burdick invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to refuse to testify because he didn’t want to name sources for articles about alleged custom fraud. President Woodrow Wilson pardoned Burdick, hoping that the editor would be inclined to testify and name sources now that he couldn’t be charged. Burdick refused the pardon, didn’t talk, and was found guilty of contempt.
One interesting note: while anyone is able to refuse a pardon, Americans are not allowed to refuse commutations of their sentences.
h/t: Mental Floss