By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Attorneys for a group of former inmates told the Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday that former Gov. Haley Barbour’s pardons of them are valid.
The Supreme Court was holding a lengthy hearing on whether the pardons were legal. Barbour pardoned nearly 200 people, including four convicted murderers and a robber who worked as trusties at the Governor’s Mansion, in his final days in office. His actions outraged victims’ families.
Attorney Thomas Fortner, who represents four of the former trusties, said past cases suggest that pardons are not reviewable by the courts.
“If you have a valid pardon signed by the governor … it is not open to judicial review,” Fortner told the court.
Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. opened the hearing, saying no decision would be announced Thursday. He did not say when the court might rule.
He also admonished the attorneys.
“I don’t want any political sound bites. I don’t want any jury arguments. No grandstanding. No sniping. Everybody understand?” Waller said.
Attorney General Jim Hood is challenging the pardons. The Democrat contends that if ads weren’t run in daily papers every day for 30 days, or weekly newspapers once a week for five weeks, the pardons aren’t valid under the state constitution.
“Publication is a condition … you can’t do it (grant a pardon) until the publication requirement is met,” Hood said.
Section 124 of the Mississippi Constitution says that in felony cases no pardon “shall be granted until the applicant therefor shall have published for thirty days, in some newspaper in the county where the crime was committed, and in the case there be no newspaper published in said county, then in an adjoining county …”
Fortner said the sole judge of whether the publication was proper is the governor.
“The governor as the chief executive is granted the power to pardon and is the judge of the propriety of the publication,” he said. “The constitution does not give the power to anybody to review that.”
Charles Griffin, an attorney for Barbour, also said the pardons are not reviewable.
“This case is not about Haley Barbour. This case is not about General Hood. And this case is not about the individuals who have received pardons. This case is about the separation of powers under the Mississippi Constitution,” Griffin said.
By intervening, Griffin said, the court would be “getting into the deliberative process that the constitution gives to the governor.”
Before leaving office Jan. 10, Barbour, a Republican, granted pardons to 198 people and granted other types of reprieves such as sentence suspensions and medical releases. Only the pardons required publication of intent.
Ten of the people pardoned were incarcerated at the time he signed the orders. Five Governor’s mansion trusties were released before Hood got a lower court judge to issue a temporary restraining order. That restraining order has kept five other pardoned inmates behind bars until the legal challenge is decided.
Many of those others who were pardoned had been out of prison for years and in some cases for decades, but their chance of having their rights restored could be wiped out in the legal battle over the pardons of those convicted of violent crimes. Hood has said only about two dozen of them published the proper notification.
None of the former Governor’s Mansion trusties met the requirement, Hood has said.
The justices questioned Hood about the role one of his investigators had in advising Barbour’s staff about the pardons. The question is whether that role disqualifies Hood from arguing against the pardons.
Hood said Barbour’s legal filings are “trying to mislead the court” about the role of his assistant attorney general. Barbour has included text messages in court records between the assistant attorney general, David Scott, and the governor’s office in which they discuss the publication statute. Scott works for Hood’s office but was assigned to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.
“First of all, the governor can’t shirk the duty and blame it on someone else no matter who it is,” Hood said.