We’ve got a president who makes things up, and won’t retract when he’s cornered. This week press secretary Sean Spicer followed the leader. He picked up Trump’s wiretap story and added a new exciting detail: Not only had Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, he might have used British intelligence spies to do the dirty work. The British, of course, went nuts, and national security adviser H. R. McMaster tried to smooth things over. McMaster is new to the job, having succeeded Mike Flynn, who had to resign for lying about his phone conversations. Flynn was not even around long enough for us to find out that he was also a lobbyist for Turkish interests and took $68,000 from various Russian connections.
Ok class, listen up. A short lesson on Presidential pardons seems to be called for. The lesson is required because seldom has so much nonsense been spoken by so many different people with different political convictions, than recently on the granting of Presidential pardons.
First the President claimed wrongly that Schabir Shaik had not applied for a pardon, then his office claimed that a decision by the President to pardon anyone could not be reviewed. And today the DA’s James Selfe said it was currently not clear whether a Presidential pardon could be taken to court for review.
The DA has proposed a private members Bill that would require the Minister of Justice to make a written recommendation to the President on whether to pardon an applicant and would require the President “to take into account” the recommendation before granting a pardon. The Bill would require the minister to have regard to a list of guidelines before making a recommendation to the President. These guidelines are currently non-biding guidelines used by the ministry of justice to process pardons and to advise the President and include:
* The age of the offender at the time of the commission of the offence;
* Whether a reasonable period has lapsed since the conviction;
* Circumstances surrounding the commission of the offence;
* The nature and seriousness of the offence;
* Personal circumstances of the offender at time of application;
* The interest of the State and the community; and
* The interests of the victim, if any.
Currently the President is not bound by these guidelines or by the recommendation of the Minister of Justice and a decision to pardon anyone is his alone. Both the Presidency and the DA seems blissfully unaware of the existence of a Constitutional Court judgment in the case of President of the Republic of South Africa v Hugo in which it confirmed that any decision by the President to pardon anyone had to conform to the Constitution and could be reviewed by a court.
If Mr Selfe had taken the time to have a quick look at this case, he would have realized that his draft Bill, if passed, might well run into serious constitutional difficulties. Writing about an almost identical provision in the interim Constitution, Justice Goldstone stated that:
The powers of the President under section 82(1) are expressed in wide and unqualified terms. Unlike most other presidential powers they can be exercised without the concurrence of the Cabinet…. his discretion is unfettered, in the sense that it is not expressly limited by the interim Constitution.
A law that would require the President to consult the Minister of Justice and to take into account a recommendation of the Minister will either be utterly irrelevant and useless (if the President could ignore the guidelines or the recommendations of the Minister altogether) or it would fetter the discretion of the President as it would force him to make a decision based on the guidelines set out in the Bill and the recommendations of the Minister made in terms of the guidelines.
In the latter case – which seems a more likely reading as the Bill would require the President to apply his mind to the recommendations and if he failed to do so a court would be able to set aside his decision – the provisions of the Bill would probably not pass constitutional muster. An ordinary law cannot limit the almost unfettered powers granted to the President by the Constitution. This is an inevitable consequence of the supremacy of the Constitution. Mr Selfe seems sadly unaware of this rather obvious fact.
This does not mean that where the President pardons an individual, that decision cannot be reviewed by a Court. As Goldstone stated in the Hugo case:
In cases where the President pardons or reprieves a single prisoner it is difficult, (save in an unlikely situation where a course of conduct gives rise to an inference of unconstitutional conduct), to conceive of a case where a constitutional attack could be mounted against such an exercise of the presidential power… This does not mean that if a president were to abuse this power vested in him or her under section 82(1)(k) a court would be powerless, for it is implicit in the interim Constitution that the President will exercise that power in good faith. If, for instance, a president were to abuse his or her powers by acting in bad faith I can see no reason why a court should not intervene to correct such action and to declare it to be unconstitutional. For example, a decision to grant a pardon in consideration for a bribe, could no doubt be set aside by a court. So, too, if a president were to misconstrue his or her powers I can see no objection to a court correcting such an error, though it could not exercise the discretion itself.
So if the President pardons Schabir Shaik because he fears that Shaik will spill the beans on the mutually symbiotic (and corrupt) relationship between himself and the President or because Shaik had deposited a million bucks into his bank account, the decision could be set aside by a court.
But what would happen in this case where Shaik was convicted of bribing the President? If the President now pardoned Shaik would a court find that this decision was taken in bad faith because it was irrevocably tainted by the previously corrupt relationship between him and Shaik? I might be wrong, but I suspect the Constitutional Court will not declare the granting of such a pardon an act of bad faith as there is no evidence that the previously corrupt relationship between the President and Shaik had continued after Shaik went to hospital… err I mean prison.
This does not mean it would be wise for the President to pardon Shaik. According to the Hugo case there are at least two situations in which this executive act of the power to pardon may be important. Firstly, it may be used to correct mistaken convictions or reduce excessive sentences and secondly, it may be used to confer mercy upon, inter alia, individuals when the President thinks it will be in the public benefit for that to happen.
No one has presented a plausible argument that Shaik was wrongly convicted. It would manifestly also not be in the public benefit to pardon Shaik as it would send a signal that all are not equal before the law and that if one happens to be a friend of the President one could escape just punishment for corruption merely because of one’s connections to the head of state. This would undermine respect for the rule of law and would surely send a signal that in South Africa who one knows is far more important than what one did or did not do.
Herewith ends the lesson.BACK TO TOP