Obama can’t stop Davis execution

Michael Moore had an item this afternoon about the looming Troy Davis execution, which raised a point a couple of emailers asked about.

President Obama: Can’t you do like Kennedy & send in federal troops to stop this injustice in Georgia? The buck stops with u.

I can appreciate why it might seem as if the buck always stops with a president, but in the Davis case, it’s not Obama’s call.

For the record, I’ve long considered Davis’ death sentence a tragic injustice, and have said so more than once. But presidential clemency isn’t an option here.

Q. Can the president grant clemency or stop the execution in any way?

A. No. While President Obama has said he thinks the death penalty does little to deter crime, he has no legal authority to get involved, officially, with a state execution. When the death penalty is imposed for a state crime like murder, it is a state issue.

When presidents during the civil rights era ordered federal troops into the South, they were enforcing federal law. Eisenhower and JFK clearly had the authority to act.

In the Davis case, as outrageous as the sentence is, it’s a state case involving state charges, tried in state courts, appealed to state officials. Obama doesn’t have the authority to “send in federal troops” to stop the execution.

It’s sometimes tempting to think a president has limitless power, especially over domestic developments. He or she is, after all, generally called “the leader of the free world,” with the scope of presidential powers in mind.

But the powers of the office are not without limits. In the Davis case, even the governor of Georgia, if he wanted to intervene, doesn’t have the legal authority to do so. The state Board of Pardons and Paroles could reconsider, or the Georgia Supreme Court might be able to consider another appeal, though it’s apparently extremely unlikely to do so. Those are the options.

It’s unsatisfying, but under the rule of law, this buck doesn’t stop in the Oval Office.