Outcry aside, no pardon changes this year

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Despite the hue and cry caused by the more than 200 pardons and commutations of sentence by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour during his final hours in office in January, it appears the Legislature will not deal with the issue during the 2012 session.
After Barbour’s actions were revealed, various legislators expressed outrage and filed bills to prevent future governors from taking similar actions.
But it appears those proposals are all dead for the 2012 session. Various bills, some trying to put limitations or conditions on the governor’s pardoning powers, died in committees – most when the chairmen opted not to bring them up.
Last week, Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, tried unsuccessfully to amend a bill on the House floor to require public hearings for violent offenders seeking parole in the county where the crime occurred. Baria said the transcript of the public hearing, which would give the victim and law enforcement the opportunity to testify, would be sent to the governor. He said the process would not limit the governor’s pardoning authority, but would allow the victims to be heard.
“The governor could throw the (transcript) in the trash if he wanted to,” Baria said.
The House leadership led a successful effort to defeat Baria’s proposal as it did another related amendment offered by Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, whose proposal would require the Parole Board to maintain any records related to pardon requests. A legislative study found many of the files of those Barbour pardoned are missing.
Early in the session, Senate Constitution Chairman Michael Watson, R-Pascagoula, said he would offer a constitutional resolution to limit the governor’s pardoning power. But Watson’s proposal died in committee as did similar proposals on the House side.
Baria said he is surprised nothing is going to happen on the issue, which gained national and international attention earlier this year.
Many of the bills dealing with the issue have died in the Judiciary A Committee where Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, has opted not to bring them up for consideration.
But Baker said that does not mean the issue should not be addressed and indicated it likely will be examined before the current four-year term ends. He said both Baria’s and Brown’s proposals have merit, but questions about them need to be resolved with further study.
Baker said he believes the Legislature has time because Gov. Phil Bryant “has made his position very clear” that he does not intend to issue any pardons and “there is nothing we can do to change what Gov. Barbour has done, whether we like it or not.”
Baker said, based on a recent Supreme Court ruling, he believes any changes to the governor’s pardoning authority need to be constitutional amendments and not general law. The Constitution already requires the person seeking a pardon to give 30-days notice in the newspaper before the pardon is granted. Despite that provision, the Supreme Court blocked Attorney General Jim Hood’s effort to revoke many of the pardons on the grounds the notice was not given.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Hood said there would be a citizen-sponsored initiative to place on the election ballot a proposal to limit the governor’s pardoning authority. If such an initiative passes, it becomes part of the state Constitution.
“The initiative is in the hands of some concerned victims’ groups and we will certainly offer our input where it is requested,” Hood said recently. “The process will take at least a few more months to develop.”
In the meantime, Baria said the issue still can be dealt with in the legislative process if the Republican leadership chooses to address it.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com