Burdick v. United States

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Burdick v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued December 16, 1914
Decided January 25, 1915
Full case nameGeorge Burdick v. United States
Citations236 U.S. 79 (more)
35 S. Ct. 267; 59 L. Ed. 476; 1915 U.S. LEXIS 1799
Case history
PriorUnited States v. Burdick, 211 F. 492 (S.D.N.Y. 1914)
Court membership
Chief Justice
Edward D. White
Associate Justices
Joseph McKenna · Oliver W. Holmes Jr.
William R. Day · Charles E. Hughes
Willis Van Devanter · Joseph R. Lamar
Mahlon Pitney · James C. McReynolds
Case opinion
MajorityMcKenna, joined by White, Holmes, Day, Hughes, Van Devanter, Lamar, Pitney
McReynolds took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Burdick v. United States, 236 U.S. 79 (1915), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that:

  • A pardoned person must introduce the pardon into court proceedings, otherwise the pardon must be disregarded by the court.
  • To do this, the pardoned person must accept the pardon. If a pardon is rejected, it cannot be forced upon its subject.

A pardon is an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual on whom it is bestowed from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. It is the private though official act of the executive magistrate, delivered to the individual for whose benefit it is intended.... A private deed, not communicated to him, whatever may be its character, whether a pardon or release, is totally unknown and cannot be acted on.[1]

United States v. Wilson established that it is possible to reject a (conditional) pardon, even for a capital sentence. Burdick affirmed that the same principle extends to unconditional pardons.


A grand jury was investigating whether any Treasury Department employee was leaking information to the press. George Burdick, city editor of the New York Tribune, took the Fifth and refused to reveal the source of his information. He was handed a pardon by US President Woodrow Wilson in a maneuver to force him to testify, but he refused to accept it or testify. He was fined $500 and jailed until he complied.


The Supreme Court ruled that Burdick did not have to testify because he had the right to reject the pardon. Thus, the government did not have the ability to cause him to lose his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by granting him a pardon. The Court declined at the time to answer the question of whether the pardoning power may be exercised before conviction.[1]

Later use[edit]

After President Gerald Ford left the White House in 1977, intimates said that the President privately justified his pardon of Richard Nixon by carrying in his wallet a portion of the text of the Burdick decision that suggested that a pardon carries an imputation of guilt and that acceptance carries a confession of guilt. Legal scholars have questioned whether that portion of Burdick is meaningful or merely dicta.[2] Ford made reference to the Burdick decision in his post-pardon written statement furnished to the Judiciary Committee of the United States House of Representatives on October 17, 1974.[3] However, the reference related only to the portion of Burdick that supported the proposition that the Constitution does not limit the pardon power to cases of convicted offenders or even indicted offenders.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Burdick v. United States, 236 U.S. 79, 89-90 (1915) (internal quotation marks omitted).
  2. ^ Flanary, Patrick. "How the Nixon Pardon Strained a Presidential Friendship". ProPublica. Retrieved 16 November 2013.
  3. ^ Gerald R. Ford: "Statement and Responses to Questions From Members of the House Judiciary Committee Concerning the Pardon of Richard Nixon," October 17, 1974. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=4471
  4. ^ 236 U.S. 79

External links[edit]