A record number of felons are seeking presidential pardons or commutations as President George W. Bush enters the final months of his term, creating one of the largest backlogs in clemency applications in recent history.
More than 2,300 people applied for a pardon or commutation in fiscal 2008, which ended Sept. 30, the largest number for any single year since at least 1900, according to Justice Department Statistics. The unprecedented number of applications and the lengthy time needed to make final decisions have led to a backlog of more than 2,000 pending clemency applications.
Who will, and will not, get clemency in the waning days of the Bush presidency -- a time when many presidents have granted sometimes controversial pardons -- remains the subject of speculation and controversy.
A number of high-profile felons have already sought clemency, among them Michael Milken, the junk-bond king and financier convicted of securities fraud in 1990; John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban; Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the former California congressman who was convicted of tax evasion; and Edwin Edwards, the former governor of Louisiana convicted in 2000 of racketeering, according to the Justice Department.
And possible investigations into the Bush administration's interrogation and domestic surveillance policies has also raised the theoretical question of whether Bush will attempt to grant a blanket, preemptive pardon to members of his administration.
Bush, who came into office in the wake of the scandal surrounding Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, has so far used his pardon power sparingly. He has approved 157 pardons and six commutations, the lowest number of any president since World War II, except for his father, George H.W. Bush, who approved 74 pardons and three commutations in his four years as president.
The number of requested and pending applications jumped at the end of the Clinton administration and has remained high in the past eight years.
The president has virtually unchecked power to issue pardons and reprieves for federal crimes, except in cases of impeachment.
Pardon experts said a blanket, preemptive pardon of members of the Bush administration would be unprecedented, and unlikely.
Other presidents have granted controversial pardons -- President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon; Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederate soldiers after the Civil War; Jimmy Carter issued a blanket amnesty for Vietnam War-era draft-dodgers.
But legal scholars say there has been no comparable grant of amnesty for what would presumably be a large group of government officials for unspecified conduct. There would be other barriers, as well. Though a blanket amnesty would forestall potential criminal cases, legal analysts said a pardon could be read as a tacit admission of guilt.
Among those who've raised the preemptive pardon issue is Harold Krent, the dean of the Chicago-Kent School of Law, who studies presidential power. But he said it would be difficult to issue a blanket amnesty to administration officials without defining in some way the extent of the possibly illegal activity. "You would almost have to say that a person was tortured in order to absolve somebody of the torture," he said.