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The Law of the Turkey Pardon

by | Nov 25, 2021 | Firm News

Each year, we hear of presidents who happily grant two turkeys a “pardon,” or freedom to live beyond their fate of ending up on the table at Thanksgiving dinner. President Obama declared in 2014 during the annual White House turkey pardoning ceremony that he was acting “fully within [his] legal authority,” to do so. But does the president actually have a legal ability to pardon turkeys near Thanksgiving? Or is it just tradition?

History of Saving Turkeys

Turkeys have been sent to the White House for hundreds of years for the sitting president’s Thanksgiving dinner. President Truman is pictured receiving a turkey as a gift from the Poultry and Egg National Board and President Eisenhower was reported to receive a turkey from the turkey lobby. However, the first president to unofficially pardon a turkey was President Lincoln, at the behest of his son, following the reception of turkeys for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t until the Kennedy administration that presidents began publicly pardoning the birds. President George H.W. Bush made the pardon “official” in 1989.

Legal Authority

The first clause of Article II Section 2 of the Constitution provides: “The President…shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” The pardoning power, as written, seemingly only applies to humans. Of course, Obama’s statement in 2014 implies that presidents do have legal authority to pardon the birds. However, it is likely he was just making a cheeky statement for the press. There is no statute that codifies the president’s ability to pardon animals, no less turkeys during Thanksgiving. However, the precedent has been set by presidents past. Turkeys and turkey-lovers can be relieved to know that each year, two of the country’s birds will be saved and will live to see Thanksgiving once more.

From all of us at Butler Law, PC, Happy Thanksgiving!

Sources:

  • https://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and_policy/2014/11/nearly-a-year-into-clemency-initiative-turkeys-remain-more-likely-to-get-prez-obama-pardon-than-peop.html
  • https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-real-story-behind-the-presidential-turkey-pardon