Op Ed

Pardon Power Should Be Used Wisely

Walker didn’t use if for eight years. How should Evers use it?

By - Dec 15th, 2019 07:25 am
Tony Evers. Photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Tony Evers. Photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Although Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and President Donald Trump have very little in common, both men believe in, and have exercised, their respective pardon powers.

A pardon is an official act that restores a person’s rights lost due to a criminal conviction. Although the power to pardon is broad, it has historically been exercised somewhat sparingly.

The Wisconsin governor’s power to pardon is granted to the governor and enshrined in Wisconsin’s Constitution; specifically, in Article V, Section 6.

The president’s power to pardon is granted to the President by Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution.

In Wisconsin, a pardon does not erase a conviction. Instead, a pardon restores rights to a person, such as the right to possess firearms and hold public office. A pardon can also make a person eligible to work in certain jobs that he or she may not otherwise be eligible for, such as becoming a police officer or working in certain medical fields.

Pardoning is part and parcel of our system of justice, as it affords people who have reformed their lives a measure of justice that the courts cannot provide.

Prior to Gov. Evers’ recent 2019 pardons, no pardon had been issued in Wisconsin for nine years because Wisconsin’s prior executive, Gov. Scott Walker, refused to issue a single pardon during his time in office and suspended the pardon advisory board. At the time, Gov. Walker told WKOW-TV, “The only people seeking pardons are people who are guilty and I don’t have any reason to undermine the criminal justice system.”

In May 2018, President Trump issued a rare posthumous pardon to African American boxer, Jack Johnson, who was convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury of “transporting women across states lines for immoral purposes” based upon a relationship Johnson had with an alleged prostitute. It is important to note that the incidents that were used to convict Johnson took place before passage of the law that was used to convict Johnson. Many legal scholars viewed Johnson’s conviction as racially motivated and a miscarriage of justice.

Gov. Evers recently issued pardons to several people. In a statement, Gov. Evers said, “For so many of these individuals, their past record has held them back from achieving personal or career goals, and I look forward to seeing how they use this second chance to give back to their communities and our state.”

One man who Gov. Evers pardoned is Marine combat veteran Eric Pizer. Pizer was twice deployed to the Middle East, having volunteered for his second tour of duty in Iraq. Pizer valiantly and honorably served his country, encountering rocket-propelled grenades and leading a group of Marines into battle.

When Pizer returned home, he wanted nothing more than to serve his community as a police officer. Unfortunately, Pizer was prevented from doing so due to a 2004 felony conviction arising from a single punch in a bar fight. That conviction prevented Pizer from being able to possess or own a firearm, and therefore, prevented him from becoming a police officer — unless Pizer were pardoned.

There was no mechanism for restoring Pizer’s right to possess or own a firearm other than a pardon. If anyone was deserving of a pardon for one bad decision (one punch at a bar), surely this former combat Marine should be considered, given his otherwise clean record and noble service to the country.

Evers did consider Pizer’s situation — and pardoned Pizer this fall.

Because of the almost unlimited discretion of Wisconsin’s governor and of the President of the United States to exercise their respective pardon powers, sometimes that power can be abused. Pardons can be controversial and, although it should not happen, pardons can be subject to political influence. Pardons should never be given as the result of some sort of political payback for loyalty shown to the politician giving the pardon.

But valid criticisms of specific pardons does not mean that we should get rid of the pardon power altogether. Instead, it means that we should demand that the few elected officials who have this awesome power to pardon exercise it judiciously, thoughtfully and wisely.

We ought to urge that those officials pardon a person only if the person has truly reformed their life and only if not doing so would result in a manifest injustice that cannot otherwise be remedied by the criminal justice system. In other words, these rare pardons should only be given to those who have truly earned it.

This column was originally published by the Sheboygan Press.

Casey Hoff is a criminal defense attorney, based in Sheboygan.

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