Under questioning: Supreme Court hears arguments on Barbour pardons

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Lawyers on both sides of the question of whether dozens of pardons issued by former Gov. Haley Barbour are valid were peppered with questions from the Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday.
Justices listened to arguments for nearly three and a half hours on whether many of the approximately 200 pardons should be revoked because the convicted felons did not meet the constitutionally mandated newspaper publication notices 30 days in advance.
“It is a very simple case,” said Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, who contends all but 22 of the pardons are not valid because of failure to adhere to the mandate.
But attorneys for Barbour and many of the pardoned felons disagreed. “The case is about separation of powers,” Barbour attorney Charles Griffin said. “It is simply not open to judicial review.”
Jackson attorney Tom Fortner, representing four of the Governor’s Mansion trusties pardoned by Barbour, said the governor “is the judge” of whether the notice requirement was properly met and the judiciary could not overrule him.
The pardons have created a public firestorm. A vast majority of those pardoned have completed their sentence, and the pardon will restore certain rights, such as the ability to vote or carry a weapon, and will expunge their record. Five of the pardoned were Governor’s Mansion trusties – four convicted of murder, one of robbery – and are currently free. Five others are still in the custody of the Department of Corrections.
The high court could issue a ruling or send the case back to the circuit court with instructions.
While giving no specific timetable, Chief Justice William Waller Jr. indicated a ruling would come in a matter of days.
Hood told the court that the governor had unfettered authority to issue pardons until the 1890 Constitution placed the condition of the 30-day notice on the pardons.
Griffin argued that the notice requirement “does not create a right. It simply is a provision.” But Justice Michael Randolph said that the rights of victims, including that of notice, were among the rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
Justice David Chandler said that while the specific issue of notice had not been heard by the court previously, there was precedent to indicate the judiciary does not second-guess the governor on pardons.
Waller asked Hood whether other governors had followed the notice requirement. He said he didn’t know what all governors had done, but pointed out Waller’s father had issued a second pardon for a felon pardoned by his predecessor because the notice requirement was not met for the first pardon.
Fortner and other attorneys said there were too many unanswered questions if there was a strict interpretation of the notice requirement as Hood argued. For instance, what would constitute 30 days if the county where the crime was committed had only a weekly newspaper.
Thursday’s Supreme Court hearing onlookers included victims, law enforcement, district attorneys from the areas where several of the pardoned felons committed their crimes and national media representatives.
bobby.harrison@journalinc.com