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House Vote Aims To Derail DOJ Processing Of Clemency Petitions

The House of Representatives has voted to prohibit the Justice Department from hiring more attorneys to deal with thousands of backlogged clemency petitions in a bid to block one of the Obama administration's top criminal justice priorities.

In a vote Thursday evening, House lawmakers blessed the fiscal year 2015 spending bill for the departments of Commerce, Justice and State. Tacked on to the end of the bill is language that says "none of the funds made available by this Act may be used to transfer or temporarily assign employees to the Office of the Pardon Attorney for the purpose of screening clemency applications."

A Department of Justice source says Attorney General Eric Holder was briefed on the vote Friday morning and that he called the provision "absurd."

Earlier this year, Holder announced a sweeping plan to open the clemency process to nonviolent inmates who had served at least 10 years behind bars, mostly for drug crimes in the 1980s and 1990s for which Congress has since dialed back lengthy prison terms. Holder said the initiative would help authorities save money, relieve overcrowded U.S. prisons and focus limited law enforcement attention on the most violent offenders in the system.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Office of Federal Public Defender have banded together to try to help inmates prepare clemency petitions for the DOJ and, ultimately, White House review.

Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jim Cole said he anticipated moving some lawyers from other parts of the Justice Department to the resource-strapped pardon attorney unit to help process tens of thousands of petitions, even if only a fraction of them are granted. But Thursday's vote could complicate that effort. The Senate still has the option of removing the funding ban when it reviews the DOJ's 2015 budget.

Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., a former U.S. attorney in the administration of President George W. Bush, sponsored the language added to the House bill.

Holding said he objected to the DOJ's new clemency initiative, saying the impetus for it is the administration's disagreement with drug sentences "handed down by the courts according to the laws written by duly elected representatives.

"This is not, as the Founders intended, an exercise of the power to provide for 'exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt,' but the use of the pardon power to benefit an entire class of offenders," Holding said in a statement, adding that it amounted to "another example of executive overreach from this administration."

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.