Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made big news by shrinking the sentence of a young man who was convicted of manslaughter in a San Diego case. Local prosecutors rose up in outrage, saying the soon-to-be-ex-governor paid a political favor to the man’s father, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez.

Why do governors and presidents get to pardon people — even another president — or reduce their sentences? Because sovereign rulers like kings used to do it. And because the power, at least in theory, serves as a check and balance on courts and legislatures.

The Los Angeles Times looks at the pardon power’s history in an article today:

The concept of a leader empowered to free prisoners harkens back to ancient Greece but was modeled for the New World on the pardon powers of the English kings, much to the consternation of the colonists who sought to exclude or at least restrict it from the U.S. Constitution, said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Illinois … “The abuse of pardons is a great tradition,” Ruckman said. “Kings used to grant pardons to celebrate their birthdays, raise an army, populate colonies or just to raise money.”

The framers of the U.S. Constitution, however, sought to do more than simply allow the president to undo convictions and sentences for any reason. The pardon power “was originally intended to be another ‘check’ in our balanced system of checks and balances,” designed to monitor the courts and legislature, wrote then-Sen. (and future Vice President) Walter Mondale in a 1975 law journal article.

American presidents have granted thousands of pardons and commutations. Well-known recipients of presidential pardons or commutations include Confederate soldiers, socialist and presidential candidate Eugene Debs, union leader Jimmy Hoffa, former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, hostage-turned-criminal Patty Hearst, the men who tried to assassinate President Harry Truman and vice presidential aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. And, of course, President Richard Nixon, who was pardoned by President Gerald Ford.

As for California, a Connecticut report says the Golden State’s governors granted 1,322 pardons from 1967-2005. Governors aren’t required to explain their decisions.

As part of their clemency power, California governors can halt executions — think of all those old movies with death-row prisoners strapped in and waiting for a call. Since 1899, hundreds of people have been put to death in California. But governors have only commuted the sentences of a few dozen prisoners. In perhaps the most famous case of an appeal to the state’s chief executive, Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown refused to stop the execution of celebrity death-row author and Time magazine cover boy Caryl Chessman in 1960. (Chessman got a last-minute reprieve from a judge, but it came too late.)

Before leaving office this month, Schwarzenegger commuted the sentence of Esteban Nuñez, 21, who pleaded guilty for his role in the stabbing death of college student Luis Santos.

Schwarzenegger wrote that the initial sentence was “excessive.” Nuñez will now serve seven years in prison instead of 16.

In 1912, the governor commuted the death sentence of a San Diego man who’d killed his mistress “at the conclusion of a long debauch.” The current and former district attorney later agreed that evidence showed his mental condition was “far from normal;” the jury foreman and three jurors thought so too. He was spared hanging.

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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