DOJ Sued for Records of Obama's Effort to Grant Mass Clemency to Criminals

With little more than two years left in the Obama administration, President Obama seems to have given up on any pretense of abiding by his oath of his office as he seeks to accomplish his leftist goals. 

Perhaps the most obvious example is illegal alien amnesty. At first, the administration tried negotiating with Congress. When that failed, Obama simply nullified the law and implemented “deferred action” (amnesty) for young illegal aliens and virtually anyone else who had made it across the border and hadn’t gotten caught for doing something else terribly criminal. Congress, including a complicit Republican leadership, watched, complained a little bit, but did little under their constitutional powers to uphold the rule of law. We have seen the results, as tens of thousands of illegals are streaming across the border, bringing crime, chaos, and disease. 

As if the situation at the border is not dangerous enough on its own, now the Obama Department of Justice wants to bust through prison walls and release tens of thousands of drug criminals onto the streets. And what’s the explanation? Drug laws are “unjust” and “outdated.” 

To get to the bottom of this under-the-radar scandal, on June 23, 2014, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the DOJ to obtain records of communication between the Office of Deputy Attorney General James Cole and a claque of far-Left organizations behind something called “Clemency Project 2014.”

The Clemency Project supports an initiative announced by the DOJ in April that would empower President Obama to grant mass clemency to as many as 20,000 convicted felons now serving time for drug-related sentences. 

Here’s what we’re after with our March 10, 2014, FOIA request and subsequent lawsuit: 

Any and all records of communications between employees or officials of the Office of Deputy Attorney General James Cole and representatives of the Federal Defenders, the ACLU, FAMM, the ABA, and NACDL related to, or in connection with or regarding the "Clemency Project 2014" from January 1, 2014, to the present date. 

On April 23, 2014, Deputy Attorney James Cole announced the Obama clemency initiative, stating it would encourage federal inmates sentenced under what he termed “out-of-date laws” to petition to have their sentences “commuted, or reduced, by the President of the United States.” The clemency initiative is part of the Obama administration’s effort to end alleged racial discrimination in drug-related sentences.

But the effort actually started back in 2010, with the signing of the Fair Sentencing Act, which for the first time in decades relaxed drug-crime sentences. The measure severely weakened a decades-old law enacted during the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged urban communities nationwide in the 1980s. 

The Fair Sentencing Act is not retroactive, so the President launched his broad plan in April to help those sentenced under the older, stricter law that required mandatory prison time for first-time offenders and a five-year sentence for trafficking offenses involving more than five grams of crack cocaine. 

Do you see the pattern? When changing the law does not yield the drastic results sought by Obama – although most would argue gutting drug laws is a very drastic and harmful move – the President simply chooses to ignore the law altogether.

And who benefits from releasing 20,000 drug criminals onto the streets? The American people, who must now deal with a potential tidal wave of resulting crime in their neighborhoods? Certainly not. No, it’s the leftist network supporting this President’s anti-law and order crusade. These radical outside groups, especially through the Justice Department, have been wagging the dog inside the Obama administration from Day One. 

In announcing the administration’s clemency initiative, Cole acknowledged the role of “numerous groups and individual attorneys” who had been working with the DOJ to free the convicted drug offenders: 

In January, I gave a speech to the New York State Bar Association in which I called upon private attorneys to volunteer to assist potential candidates in assembling commutation petitions – ones which provide a focused presentation of the information the Department and the President will consider – in order to meaningfully evaluate whether a petitioner qualifies under this initiative. Since that time, dedicated and experienced criminal defense and nonprofit lawyers have responded to that call. These numerous groups and individual attorneys, who are calling themselves Clemency Project 2014, will be working with inmates who appear to meet the six criteria and request the assistance of a lawyer. 

Among the groups that comprise Clemency Project 2014 are Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the American Bar Association (ABA), and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

Judicial Watch has now filed suit for DOJ communications with each of the organizations. 

Cole’s statement also included an announcement that DOJ Pardon Attorney Ron Rodgers had abruptly resigned his position. Though Cole characterized the Rodgers resignation as “in the tradition” of senior executive service attorneys who ask for reassignment, there was some indication that it may have come about as a result of Rodger’s disagreement with the Obama clemency initiative.

And here we see yet another Obama administration pattern on display: dissent is not tolerated inside the Obama administration. It’s a “get in line or get out of the way” system that will only grow in efficiency as the days tick off towards the end of the Obama administration. 

Rodgers, who is known for his opposition to clemency requests, was replaced by Deborah Leff, who worked with the Access to Justice Initiative, a DOJ agency aiding low-income defendants in court. According to the liberal publication The American Prospect, “For those hoping to see a robust clemency push, her background bodes well.” 

Historically, the power to reduce sentences and grant pardons has been used on a case-by-case basis. During his presidency, George W. Bush granted only 11 sentence commutations, while Bill Clinton granted a total of 61. Both are a far cry from 20,000. 

Robert Weisberg, a law professor at Stanford University and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, questions whether the Obama clemency move rightly falls under the legitimate powers of the Executive Branch: “Although it’s being done through the pardon power, it really is a kind of administrative action to make some of the newer laws retroactive. ... It’s almost as if they have to invent their own kind of shadow sentencing guidelines and in effect re-sentence certain people.” 

Certain members of Congress are also balking at the Obama clemency initiative, with Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) stating, “While the pardon power has been interpreted broadly, the Framers never intended for it to be used in this manner. Rather, they intended for it to be used on a limited, case-by-case basis to correct injustice, not to be a tool for the administration to rewrite or even eliminate laws passed by Congress.” 

This is an example of the imperial presidency at its worst, and we believe the American people have a right to know who is behind his arrant usurpation of power. 

The Obama Department of Justice’s outsourcing of its work to left-wing interest groups is yet another abuse that undermines accountability. So it is no surprise that the DOJ is now violating our nation’s primary open records law and refusing to divulge basic information about this controversial program.


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