SID SALTER: Court’s Barbour decision may impact judicial elections

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – The political stakes were high for former Gov. Haley Barbour and Attorney General Jim Hood as the state Supreme Court unveiled their 6-3 decision regarding the constitutionality of Barbour’s end of term pardons, reprieves, clemencies and medical discharges for more than 200 people.
But in the end, the state’s highest court upheld the constitutionality of Barbour’s decisions, making the argument that judicial interference in the pardons represents a separation of powers conflict.
A review of the records by the Associated Press indicated that Barbour gave full pardons to 203 people, including “17 convicted of murder, 10 convicted of manslaughter, eight convicted of aggravated assault and five convicted of drunken-driving incidents that caused deaths.” Barbour additionally granted other forms of official mercy – full pardons, medical releases, indefinite suspension of sentence or conditional clemency – to 26 inmates who were still in state custody.
The rest – 189 in all – had already been released from prison.
Hood pressed the case based on his contention that a constitutional public notice requirement wasn’t met. Writing for the majority, Justice Jess Dickinson said: “We are mindful that the victims and their families are entitled to be interested in the subject matter of this case, and they are undoubtedly – and understandably – concerned with its outcome.” But Dickinson concluded that in the opinion of the majority, only Barbour had the constitutional authority to decide if that public notice requirement had been satisfied.
The high court ruling came just two days after the Mississippi Legislature saw efforts to change the state’s pardon laws die in the respective House and Senate committees. In reaction, Hood vowed to seek a ballot initiative to make the judicial branch responsible for enforcement.
For Barbour, the ruling vindicates him of accusations of legal misconduct. As to public perception, the ruling does little to change the fact that some Mississippians are outraged and for others it was a political non-event.
Hood comes out of the fray as popular as ever with his political base. The issue will serve him well and may even carry to the 2015 elections. Likewise, Hood’s detractors will find the spat with Barbour as another brick in the wall of mistrust they’ve built.
But it is in the state’s judicial elections where the decision may resonate long and loud. Judicial races in Mississippi have become targets for the national war over tort reform between business/medical interests and trial lawyers. “Soft on crime” is a label most often distorted in these affairs.
Three Supreme Court justices face re-election bids in 2012 – Chief Justice Bill Waller, Justice Mike Randolph and Justice Leslie King. A fourth, Justice George Carlson, has announced his intention to retire and his seat will be an open this year.
Randolph, who was appointed to the high court, joined Waller and Justice Randy Pierce in dissent from the majority opinion. Clearly, the remaining justices who joined Dickinson and Carlson run the significant political risk of seeing campaign ads targeting their vote.
Gubernatorial pardons have not been politicized in Mississippi in over a half-century. But the process will remain under a microscope for years to come regardless the outcome of this case.
Bottom line: Looking for a gubernatorial pardon in Mississippi any time soon? Good luck with that.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or sidsalter@sidsalter.com.