Pardoning Contempt—Reconsidering the Criminal-Civil Divide

The Supreme Court has never authoritatively addressed the President’s power to pardon civil contempt. But in Ex parte Grossman, Chief Justice Taft argued in dictum that the President categorically lacked such power. That conclusion, now taken for granted, purportedly rested on English precedent as crystallized by Blackstone. But pre-ratification English cases and treatises fail to support the criminal-civil distinction as the boundary of the President’s power to pardon contempt. To the extent those English sources reveal at least an ambiguity in Article II, post-ratification American practice and normative considerations lend additional support to an alternative framework. Identifying a neglected indeterminacy as to the pardon power’s reach over certain civil contemnors, this Note rejects Taft’s criminal-civil divide and proposes a limiting principle centered on private legal interests. History, common law precedent, and functional considerations support a Constitution that permits pardoning contempt unless the pardon extinguishes private legal interests of third parties. Under this view, the President can pardon all criminal contemnors and can release from coercive fines or imprisonment those civil contemnors who owe tangible, but not equitable, relief. For criminal contemnors and this subset of civil contemnors, presidential pardons may face political or ethical obstacles, but should not face constitutional ones.