Paragraph One of Article 2, Section 2 of the United States constitution contains the following text:

"The President … shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."

In all the political punditry I have seen online and on television, this has been interpreted to mean that the President can only pardon Federal crimes. Based on the original text, why would the President not have the power to pardon ANY crime against ANY STATE? The text reads "against the United States". Are the various States not part of the United States? Should the Presidential pardon power not then extend to any crimes committed against any State Law (since said State is part of the United States)?


2 Answers 2


Look throughout the Constitution for a better understanding of the difference in the lexicon used to refer to the United States as a single entity, the several States of which the United States is composed, and individual States.

When the Constitution references the whole of the United States, and the Federal Government the document constructed, it just says "the United States."

When the Constitution refers to the States that constitute the United States, it says "several States."

When the Constitution refers to a particular State, the language is "the States," "particular States," "respective States."

For further understanding, consider the nature of the States during the ratification period. They were stronger sovereign entities, where the Constitution was carefully constructed to avoid usurping excessive authority from the States into the Federal Government. Why would the leadership of the States accept a document that empowered the national government to exercise authority over state laws?

  • Your answer is correct. I think it is important to add the "stick" that the federal government holds over state government. Most of it derives from the "interstate commerce" clause. That thing has been used to justify so many bad laws. Dec 6, 2018 at 14:47
  • @FrankCedeno While I have an extensive grievance with the expansive approach to the Interstate Commerce clause since Ratification, that would not be on topic for this question. I'm building a separate question, which I'll likely answer myself, on how the Interstate Commerce clause has evolved. Dec 6, 2018 at 14:56
  • @DrunkCynic I believe this answer fails to actually answer the question. It does correctly establish the target of the clause, but not answer on how that prevents the pardon power from extending to the state or local laws. I believe the question is hinging on the concept of supremacy clauses of federal law trumping local laws.
    – David S
    Dec 6, 2018 at 18:28
  • 1
    This answer delineates how the Federal Government of the United States, and various subsets of the same, are addressed by the Constitution, through an examination of the "original text" as detailed in the question. It is a repudiation of the question's premise, addressing "Based on the original text, why would the President not have the power to pardon ANY crime against ANY STATE? The text reads "against the United States". Are the various States not part of the United States?" While the question asks about the reach of the president, the root problem is Constitutional understanding. Dec 6, 2018 at 18:52

The founders' interpretation of the relationship of the states to the federal government was a confederation of semi-autonomous states: pool resources for some things (defense, interstate transport), but maintain internal sovereignty for others (laws, norms). They weren't looking to make a strong head executive, more of a manager or middleman. So to allow the president to meddle in the politics and laws of individual states (unless it was as mediator between two states) would have been anathema.

To drive this point home, they created the 10th Amendment: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." So if there's any doubt whatsoever about whose job it is, it isn't the president's job.


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