JACKSON — The Mississippi Supreme Court said yesterday it would take up the legal challenge to the pardons ex-Gov. Haley Barbour gave out in his last days in office.
State Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat, wants to invalidate dozens of the 198 pardons that Barbour, a Republican, handed out before his second four-year term ended Jan. 10. Ten of the people were still incarcerated when they received reprieves.
Only about two dozen of the people pardoned followed the Mississippi Constitution’s requirement to publish a notice about their reprieves in their local newspapers for 30 days, said Hood, who wants the others invalidated. Barbour has said the pardons are valid and that he gave them because he’s a Christian and believes in second chances.
Most of the people who could lose their pardons already served their sentences and have been out of prison for years. Some of them were convicted of comparatively minor crimes as far back as the 1960s and 1970s and have never been in trouble again.
Five of the pardoned are being held on a temporary restraining order issued by Hinds County Circuit Judge Tomie Green. The Supreme Court extended that order until it can rule on the matter. It set a hearing for Feb. 9 and said it would try to rule quickly.
Barbour had no comment on the case. Hood was pleased with the court’s decision.
“This is a good development that the Supreme Court will decide the seminal issue in this case regarding the 30-day publication,” Hood said in a statement yesterday evening.
Hood said he would present the high court a brief next Tuesday showing that “numerous other courts have ruled consistent with our interpretation.”
Five men who worked as Governor’s Mansion trusties, four convicted killers and man serving life for robbery, already were released by the time Hood sought the injunction. The judge told the trusties to contact corrections officials every 24 hours, but one of them missed a court hearing before he was served with a summons this week in Laramie, Wyo.
Matt Steffey, a constitutional law professor at Mississippi College, said the high court’s decision is not a surprise because it ultimately would be up to the justices to decide the constitutional issue.
“This is a positive development. Fundamentally these are legal arguments, not factual arguments, so there’s no reason the Supreme Court should not speak to it,” Steffey said. “It has created so much turmoil and attention, so to have a final resolution sooner than later would be welcome by everyone involved, I would think.”
The case is unprecedented, Steffey said. It’s a civil lawsuit, but five people have been ordered to remain in prison while others have been required to call corrections officials every day. Hood even sent his investigators all the way to Wyoming to serve a summons to convicted murderer Joseph Ozment, one of the former Governor’s Mansion trusties.
“It’s a core question of separation of powers between the branches of government. It’s an important question that the Supreme Court has to answer,” Steffey said.
Barbour granted some sort of reprieve to 26 inmates who were in custody — 10 full pardons; 13 medical releases; one suspension of sentence; one conditional, indefinite suspension of sentence; and one conditional clemency. Those being released for medical reasons or who received suspended sentences or conditional clemency did not need to publish notices in newspapers.
The Supreme Court’s ruling means a lower court hearing on the matter won’t happen Friday. An attorney for some of the people who received pardons requested the Supreme Court to take the case.