In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first African American to win the heavyweight title in boxing. In 1912, after marrying a white woman named Lucille Cameron, Johnson was twice charged with, and later convicted of, violating the Mann Act, which banned inter alia the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Johnson eventually spent a year in prison for this alleged crime.
Ostensibly, Johnson’s treatment at the hands of the U.S. Government was a miscarriage of justice. Not only was Johnson apparently innocent of the crimes for which he was punished, but the Mann Act itself did not become law until after Johnson had committed the acts that allegedly violated it. The historical record thus supports the conclusion that Johnson was the target of a racist vendetta that grew out of white America’s anger toward Johnson’s athletic ascendancy and romantic relationships with white women.
Prominent members of congress, in addition to Johnson’s descendants, are now requesting that the U.S. Justice Department advise President Obama to rectify this past injustice by issuing a posthumous pardon. As described in a recent Associated Press article, the government’s response has thus far been remarkably tepid. While the Obama Administration has yet to even comment on the matter, the Justice Department has formally refused to consider recommending a presidential pardon for Johnson because, it claims, the resources necessary for making informed recommendations are better used for cases involving people “who can truly benefit” from being pardoned (i.e., the living).
Of course, there are many questions a critic of the Justice Department’s argument might ask; some of them are philosophical. For instance: Is it really true that dead people cannot benefit from being pardoned? And, in any case, how is whether a person will benefit from a pardon relevant to whether he should in fact be pardoned? Should the threshold of evidence sufficient for granting a pardon be equal between the dead and the living? Or might a lower threshold of evidence be warranted in cases involving the dead (say) because we need not worry about mistaken pardons bestowing benefits upon the dead in ways that we might worry about mistaken pardons bestowing benefits upon the living?
By Simon Keller , University of Melbourne
(Vol. 3, December 2008)
Dworkin’s Theory of Law
By Dale Smith , Faculty of Law, Monash University
(Vol. 2, February 2007)