Extraordinary (in the sense of rare and nearly unprecedented) piece of news today: Bush withdraws 1 of 19 pardons he issued Tuesday.
To a Constitutional lawyer, the interesting question is whether it is even possible to revoke a pardon once it is given. It is long-established that in the eyes of the law, a full pardon makes it as if the offense — not just the conviction — never happened. The Supreme Court said 125 years ago that “the pardon not merely releases the offender from the punishment prescribed for the offence, but that it obliterates in legal contemplation the offence itself.” Carlisle v. United States, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 147, 151 (1873). [Note, however, that some courts hold, controversially, that a pardon does not preclude the imposition of attorney discipline based on the underlying conduct, because a pardon “cannot work such moral changes as to warrant the assertion that a pardoned convict is just as reliable as one who has constantly maintained the character of a good citizen.”]
So, pretty clearly, once a full pardon is signed, sealed, delivered, and accepted by the recipient, that's it: you can't take it back. (So called-conditional pardons, which may have a condition precedent are a different animal, but that's not what we're talking about here.)
The AP's story is very scanty on the legally significant facts, saying only that Bush “revoked” a pardon, and then discussing the reasons for the sudden turnaround. That could mean almost anything.
If Bush had not formally signed a pardon document, then there's no legal issue: what's been revoked is an intention to pardon, and the public announcement doesn't create any legal obligation to actually do so. The cases are clear on that point.
But if the President actually signed a pardon, then changes his mind, all of a sudden we're in interesting territory, reminiscent of Marbury v. Madison but involving a completely contrary opinion by Chief Justice Marshall.
Logically there are four steps in a regular (as opposed either a general or conditional) pardon:
1. The President makes a decision.
2. The President signs a pardon, and (perhaps) it is sealed to show it's official.
3. The pardon is delivered to the beneficiary.
4. The beneficiary accepts it.
Everyone agrees that after step four under US law the pardon is unassailable.
It seems to me also that there's basically no debate that by then end of step three, the pardon is final and cannot be revoked, even if the beneficiary hasn't yet decided whether to accept it or not. And, as noted above, after step one, there's nothing to revoke except a legally meaningless promise.
The interesting case — which may or may not exist here, we don't yet know — is whether a pardon can be revoked after its signed (and sealed), but before it's delivered. It doesn't happen very often, but it's not unheard of.
I'd argue that the answer to that question ought to be no — once a pardon is signed and sealed, that's it, the thing is done forever unless the recipient of the pardon rejects it. Here's why: First, persons can be pardoned in absentia, by general proclamation, or even posthumously, in situations where delivery is impossible, or at least unnecessary. (On the other hand, as discussed further below, no one is obligated to accept a pardon; some might see it as an admission of guilt, or in the case of conditional pardons might find the conditions unpalatable.) Second, it would be bad to create a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't pardon that some future President Blagojevich could sign but not deliver, tricking someone into acts of reliance to their detriment.
There is, however, some weighty precedent for the proposition that at least a garden-variety pardon is not complete until delivered. This line of argument originates in this statement of Chief Justice Marshall's in U.S. v. Wilson, 32 U.S. 150, 161 (1833). Marshall, famously, had earlier decided in Marbury v. Madison that an official's commission was valid without delivery, and hence must be delivered even if the President did not want the appointment to go through. But pardons, he argued, were different:
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. It may be supposed, that no being condemned to death would reject a pardon; but the rule must be the same in capital cases and in misdemeanors. A pardon may be conditional; and the condition may be more objectionable than the punishment inflicted by the judgment. The pardon may possibly apply to a different person, or a different crime. It may be absolute or conditional. It may be controverted by the prosecutor, and must be expounded by the court. These circumstances combine to show, that this, like any other deed, ought to be brought ‘judicially before the court, by plea, motion or otherwise.’
Similarly, the District Court decision in In re De Puy, 7 F. Cas. 506, 510-11 (S.D.N.Y. 1869) (No. 3814), described in Harold J. Krent, Conditioning the President's Conditional Pardon Power, 89 Cal. L. Rev. 1665, 1704 (2001) as involving:
President Andrew Johnson's offer of a pardon to Jacob DePuy, who had been convicted and incarcerated for violating the revenue laws. President Johnson predicated the pardon on DePuy's agreement to pay a fine. When President Grant assumed the reins of power, he revoked the pardon, and the Court upheld the revocation because the paperwork had yet to reach DePuy even though the warden had the papers in his possession at the time President Grant revoked the offer. … Indeed, President George W. Bush's administration reportedly studied the feasibility of revoking the Marc Rich pardon, and it was not clear whether the Clinton administration had completed all of the paperwork at the time Bush took office.
So, depending on the facts and especially how advanced the paperwork was, Robert Toussie of Brooklyn, N.Y. may have an interesting case, or he may have nothing.
Incidentally, according to Jack M. Beermann, Presidential Power in Transitions, 83 B.U. L. Rev. 947, 979 n.105 (2003), Bush decided to let Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich go through, despite doubts as to whether the paperwork was final: “President Bush considered the possibility of revoking this pardon but decided against it “to protect that privilege, not only for me but for future presidents, as well.” (citing John Riley, Bush Won't Revoke Pardon of Financier, Newsday, at A14 (Jan. 30, 2001)).
It's interesting that Bush's concern eight years ago “to protect [the pardon] privilege, not only for me but for future presidents” seems to have attenuated. What would Cheney say?