A Clear View of a Narrower Path: Examining the Baker Pardon Guidelines

cosmas_willby William G. Cosmas

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Two years ago in this journal, I examined the process of obtaining a pardon in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from the perspective of having represented one of the first successful petitioners for such relief since 2002. This article examines the Executive Clemency Guidelines issued by Governor Charles D. Baker (the “Baker Guidelines”) as compared to those that his predecessor, Governor Deval L. Patrick, issued in January 2014 (the “Patrick Guidelines”).

In Massachusetts, a governor’s Executive Clemency Guidelines (the “Guidelines”) largely govern the process from petition to clemency.  Statutes and regulations set forth the procedure through which the Parole Board, acting as the Advisory Board of Pardons (the “Board”), reviews, evaluates, and considers petitions for clemency. The Guidelines set forth the qualitative framework for that analysis, through an expression of the governor’s philosophy concerning clemency and the criteria that he or she will use to determine whether a petitioner merits recommendation to the Governor’s Council (the “Council”) for relief. On the day after his inauguration, Governor Baker rescinded the Patrick Guidelines, under which Governor Patrick had issued four pardons at the close of his term, halting administrative review of existing petitions until he could draft and issue his own Guidelines. Baker Rescinds Ex-Gov. Patrick’s Clemency Guidelines, Associated Press, Jan. 16, 2015. Governor Baker described his decision as “standard operating procedure,” because with a new governor comes a new understanding of the nature and contours of the governor’s pardon power. See Gov. Baker To Submit New Pardon Guidelines In Coming Weeks, Associated Press, Jan. 23, 2015. The Baker Guidelines were issued in December 2015.

An Apparent Attempt to Streamline

While the Baker Guidelines offer streamlined, procedural clarity and hew closely to relevant law, the Patrick Guidelines contemplated a holistic review of each petitioner, “intend[ing] to inform” the Board—the “public officials who are most able to make informed decisions on the persons seeking relief” —in its preliminary analysis of each petition. See Patrick Guidelines (“PG”) at 1-2. In contrast, the Baker Guidelines emphasize his prerogative to “direct” the Board’s analysis, in language that agrees with the Board’s recently-revised regulations (see, e.g., 120 CMR 900.01(2) (2017) (“The [Board] shall be directed by the Governor’s Executive Clemency Guidelines in its consideration of petitions for executive clemency.”) See Baker Guidelines (“BG”) at 1-2. Such emphasis also reflects the governor’s constitutional power, under Article 73 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, to determine which clemency petitions merit submission to the Council for approval. See In re Op. of the Justices, 210 Mass. 609, 611 (1912); see also M.G.L. ch. 127 § 152.

Both sets of Guidelines reserve that power notwithstanding their own terms, but the Baker Guidelines explicitly acknowledge that they do not bind the Council, whose “concurrent action” on a petition is required to issue a pardon. BG at 2; see In re Op. of the Justices, 210 Mass. at 611. This nod to the Council’s constitutional independence, see Pineo v. Exec. Council, 412 Mass. 31, 36-37 (1992), an esoteric point of law easily lost on those without experience on Beacon Hill, may prove crucial to future petitioners who reach the final stage of review. Without this provision, a petitioner (and his/her counsel) might assume that the same Guidelines that governed the lengthy process to that point also set the rules for Council’s essential consideration of a petition. In truth, there are no rules for the Council’s analysis or for any related hearing other than those, if any, promulgated by the Council for the occasion.

Finally, the Baker Guidelines offer added precision by incorporating relevant statutory and regulatory provisions. For example, both Guidelines indicate that, for certain offenses, a pardon “rarely” would include restoration of a petitioner’s firearms rights. Unlike the Patrick Guidelines, however, the Baker Guidelines specifically incorporate the offenses included in M.G.L. ch. 140 § 121’s definition of “violent crime”: “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year… that: (i) has as an element the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force or a deadly weapon against the person of another; (ii) is burglary, extortion, arson, or kidnapping; (iii) involves the use of explosives; or (iv) otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious risk of injury to another,” BG at 4. Although the Supreme Judicial Court struck down part (iv) of the statute as unconstitutionally vague in May 2016, Commonwealth v. Beal, 474 Mass. 341, 349-51 (2016), the precision that the rest of § 121 provides may help petitioners set more accurate expectations for the process.

An Embrace of Retributive Justice

Both Guidelines establish similar basic threshold considerations for pardon relief, but the Baker Guidelines imbue those considerations with a retributive theory of justice. Perhaps drawing the line for the Commonwealth’s retribution at the petitioner’s release from state supervision, the Patrick Guidelines first considered whether “[t]he grant of a pardon is in the interests of justice,” considering “the nature of the underlying offense(s), the impact of the crime on any victim(s) and society as a whole, the petitioner’s role in the underlying offense, and the fundamental fairness and equity of granting a pardon to the petitioner.” PG at 3. By contrast, the Baker Guidelines identify the “nature and circumstances of the offense” as the first “paramount consideration,” paying particular attention “to the impact on the victim or victims and the impact of the crime on society as a whole.” BG at 3. The greater the severity of the petitioner’s offense, the more time “that should have elapsed in order to minimize any impact clemency may have on respect for the law.” Id. at 2.

The second threshold question under the Patrick Guidelines focused on a petitioner’s rehabilitation, considering whether “the petitioner has been a law-abiding citizen and presents no risk for re-offense,” to determine whether a pardon would be consistent with maintaining public safety. PG at 3. That analysis focused on the petitioner’s “good citizenship” during a period of time following confinement or probation based on whether the petitioner’s offense was a felony or misdemeanor. PG at 3. The Baker Guidelines’ analogous “paramount consideration”—“the character and behavior, particularly post-offense behavior, of the petitioner”—presents a striking shift from the Patrick Guidelines. See BG at 3. A petitioner must have “clearly demonstrated acceptance of responsibility for the offense for which the petitioner is seeking clemency” —and appealing or challenging the underlying conviction or sentence is “[g]enerally… inconsistent with acceptance of responsibility.” Id. In other words, a petitioner who exercised his legal right to appeal or challenge a conviction twenty-five years ago, no matter the justification, unwittingly disadvantaged his future clemency petition to Governor Baker in the process. The Baker Guidelines also essentially require that a petitioner have “made full restitution” to victims economically injured by the petitioner’s crime(s), giving “stronger consideration to petitioners who have made restitution in a prompt manner.” Id. A petitioner’s public service will also lead to “stronger consideration,” whether that public service consists of “substantial assistance to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of other more culpable offenders” or “service in the military or other public service, or . . . charitable work.” Id.

Narrowed Opportunity for Petitioners

Both sets of guidelines provide additional factors to be taken into account in determining a petitioner’s entitlement to relief, such as requiring a period of “good citizenship” since release from government supervision, but the Baker Guidelines take a narrower focus, limiting opportunities for petitioners. The Patrick Guidelines considered “either (1) a compelling need for a pardon; or (2) extraordinary contributions to society that would justify restoration of his/her reputation as a concluding step of rehabilitation.” PG at 2. Similarly, the Baker Guidelines require petitioners to “demonstrate both good citizenship and a verified, compelling need,” but do not expressly consider the “extraordinary contributions to society” that might have tipped the balance to clemency under the Patrick Guidelines. BG at 3. Instead, the Baker Guidelines require disclosure and investigation of “whether the petitioner has been the subject of any civil lawsuit, including any restraining order, during the claimed period of good citizenship,” thus imposing a greater burden than the Patrick Guidelines, which required consideration only of restraining orders or civil contempt orders. See BG at 4; PG at 4.

Conclusion

On the whole, the Baker Guidelines provide additional clarity—but commensurately narrower paths to clemency—than those they replaced. It remains to be seen whether and in what circumstances Governor Baker will exercise his constitutional power to grant the “extraordinary remedy” of a pardon—and whether his Guidelines will impact his ability to do so.

William G. Cosmas, Jr., is an associate at Fitch Law Partners LLP, where he works primarily in the areas of business litigation, white-collar criminal defense, government investigations, real estate disputes, and complex civil litigation.  In 2014, he represented a successful petitioner for clemency in Massachusetts. 

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