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Haley Barbour's mass pardons under scrutiny at Mississippi Supreme Court

The Mississippi Supreme Court is expected to rule quickly on whether 193 of the 200+ pardons by outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour are constitutional. A key issue is whether the public was properly notified.

By Staff writer / February 9, 2012

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, at podium, argues whether a number of last-minute pardons by then Gov. Haley Barbour were valid before the Mississippi Supreme Court, Thursday, at a hearing in Jackson, Miss.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

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Atlanta

Did Haley Barbour, now the ex-governor of Mississippi, act within his gubernatorial powers when he pardoned at least 200 convicts as he left office in January, or did he flout a constitutional rule put into place by Mississippi framers in 1890?

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That's the question the Mississippi Supreme Court faced Thursday as it heard arguments in a case that has roiled America's most conservative state. The pardons, which included some of the state's most infamous killers, have shocked and angered many citizens, law enforcement officials, and families of victims.

Mr. Barbour cited his Christian belief in mercy and redemption in signing off on the long list of pardons, but Attorney General Jim Hood, the only Democrat to hold statewide office in Mississippi, received an injunction from a lower court to stay 193 of the pardons because the felons in question allegedly didn't give proper legal notice to the public.

Mr. Hood, who has characterized Barbour's list of pardons as a mockery of justice and a “slap to the face” of victims, argued in court Thursday that most of the pardons violate a notice requirement put in the state constitution in 1890. That requirement, he said, is intended to give the public some influence over the process.

But lawyers representing Barbour and 10 pardoned felons argued that an invalidation of pardons on procedural grounds by the state Supreme Court would undermine the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches. It would allow judges, without precedent, “to climb inside the heads of governors,” said defense attorney Tom Fortner, who represents four of the pardoned criminals.

“Were the rights retained by the people usurped by any branch of government? That's the argument that we have to analyze,” said Justice Michael Randolph.

Mississippi is one of dozens of states that allow governors to pardon felons, but the power has been used sparingly in modern times. Barbour departed from that tradition when he left office in early January, and the sheer number of pardons, the severity and high profile of some of the cases, and the fact that 56 felons filed no public notice at all are part of what drew the attorney general's ire.

The fact that Barbour, a former Republican National Committee head, took a law-and-order view during his two-term tenure has fueled a national debate about whether the pardons were an overreach of executive power or whether they amounted to a unique critique of an unjust legal system.

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