Court backs Haley Barbour, rules governor has power to pardon at will

The Mississippi Supreme Court found Haley Barbour's pardon of 203 inmates upon leaving office in January constitutional, reaffirming a governor's unique power to override the justice system.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Haley Barbour, former Republican governor of Mississippi, speaks at a General Electric conference on 'American Competitiveness: What Works' in Washington on February 13.

Arguing for four convicted murderers pardoned by Gov. Haley Barbour, attorney Tom Fortner told the Mississippi Supreme Court last month that, “I believe the governor has the right to reach his hand into prison and pull out a handful of people and pardon them.”

In a 6-to-3 decision on Thursday, the court agreed, striking down claims by Attorney General Jim Hood that many of the unprecedented 203 pardons Mr. Barbour granted upon leaving office in January had not been properly announced to the public, as the Mississippi Constitution requires. The ruling reaffirmed the separation of powers between the state's three branches of government, and, in essence, prevents the judiciary from getting, as one attorney said, “inside the governor's head.”

Shocking to families of victims, and a relief to dozens of inmates whose futures lay in the court's hands, the decision also reaffirmed the unique power of a governor to nullify jury verdicts and ignore judges in order to offer redemption for reformed criminals. Largely as a result of the ruling, several proposed pardon reform bills introduced in the legislature died in committee on Thursday.

"This was not only about the power of the pardon or even the power of the office, but about the ability of a governor to grant mercy,” Barbour said in a statement. “These were decisions based on repentance, rehabilitation, and redemption, leading to forgiveness and the right defined and given by the state constitution to the governor to offer such people a second chance.”

Representing a populist outcry about the pardons – which marred the last days in office of an otherwise popular governor who oversaw the state's recovery from hurricane Katrina – Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said most of the pardons had not met a constitutional 30-day publication requirement intended to “let people comment, so there wasn't a last minute rush and errors in the pardons themselves.”

Three justices concurred with Mr. Hood's assessment. “Today's decision is a stunning victory for some lawless convicted felons, and an immeasurable loss for the law-abiding citizens of our state,” Justice Michael Randolph wrote in his dissent.

The people of Mississippi may yet have the last word on the governor's pardon power, however.

Mr. Hood said Thursday he's planning to introduce a ballot initiative that would put the onus on the judicial branch to enforce the 30-day notification requirement. "I am calling on all our victims' groups, law enforcement and other volunteers to help me obtain the necessary signatures to place the measure on the ballot,” he said.

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