Commutation? Clemency? Pardon? Sorting Out Legalese in Libby Case

Experts sort out the legalese behind Libby's waived sentence.

ByABC News
July 2, 2007, 10:09 PM

July 3, 2007 — -- President Bush spared former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby from a 30-month prison term in the CIA leak investigation, calling the sentence too harsh.

The president announced his decision hours after a federal appeals panel ruled that Libby could not delay his prison term, meaning Libby was likely to have to report to jail soon.

The president has broad discretion to exercise presidential power to pardon convicted felons. In this case, the president did not pardon Libby; rather, he waived his prison term. What are the president's powers and how exactly were they used in the Libby case? ABC News consulted experts to sort out the legalese.

Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law

The president has the power to commute the sentence or pardon the crime. It is not reviewable and the president doesn't have to give a reason.

Christopher Schroeder, Duke University law and public policy professor

Commutations have always been a lesser included authority under president's power to pardon. Section II of Article II of the Constitution says the president has the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States. It does not mention commutations specifically, but they come under the pardon power.

Randy Barnett, Carmack Waterhouse professor of legal theory at Georgetown University Law Center

Pardon is an "executive forgiveness of crime"; commutation is an "executive lowering of the penalty."


A "pardon wipes out the conviction while a commutation leaves the conviction intact but wipes out the punishment."


Commutation is a form of clemency, used often by governors. A famous example is Illinois Gov. Ryan commuting the death sentences of everyone on death row. By commuting the sentence, Bush was saying, "The crime wasn't forgiven, but the penalty has been reduced." In other words, Bush is saying the "punishment here does not fit the crime." On the other hand, a pardon is granted for a number of reasons: because the punishment doesn't fit the crime, the person is innocent or the prosecutors abused their discretion.