Federal Commutation Clinic at School of Law the First in the Nation

The University of St. Thomas School of Law has launched a new Federal Commutation Clinic under the direction of Professor Mark Osler. The clinic is the first of its kind in the nation. 

Students in the clinic will explore the issues of commutation and look at particular cases where they may assist individuals in seeking a commutation of sentence. A petition of commutation of sentence is submitted to the U.S. president through the Justice Department. According to federal guidelines, those forms can only be filed after all other legal remedies are exhausted. 

Mark Osler

“The pardon power of the president has been controversial and in flux for the past 35 years,” Osler said. He noted that one goal of the clinic is to investigate the principled use of the president’s constitutional pardon power.  

In starting the clinic Osler commented, “The way I envision my work is that when there is no play for mercy, even when it is most warranted, that is where people of faith should inject themselves.”  Osler has worked for many years on sentencing and capital punishment issues. 

Recently, Osler worked on a commutation of sentence petition for Percy Dillon. The Dillon case is indicative of the importance of this new clinic, according to Osler, who served as pro bono counsel to the Washington Legal Foundation for the amicus brief in U.S. v. Dillon. During that Supreme Court argument, things took an interesting turn when Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned Leondra Kruger, assistant to the solicitor general, specifically about how many petitions were being processed through the Justice Department.  The answer was zero, an answer that seemed to imply that among at least some of the justices, they felt that there was a path to a remedy for Dillon and possibly some of the other 185,000 prisoners currently in the federal system.

Students in the clinic are investigating a case that may lead to work on a Texas prisoner’s behalf.  Currently students are reviewing documents, and later in the semester one of the clinic students will travel to Texas to do hands-on investigative work.

This new clinic adds to a growing list of hands-on opportunities at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Most recently the School of Law added a Bankruptcy Law Clinic. Other clinical opportunities include the Community Justice Project, Elder Law Practice Group and Immigration Law Practice Group. All of these clinics are part of the Interprofessional Center, which combines the disciplines of law, social work, and psychology to provide learning opportunities for graduate students in those areas.