Daily Archives: March 8, 2012

Pardon me

Just before he left office in January 2012, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour pardoned a whopping 198 people at once. Despite the fact that only 10 of them were still incarcerated, the pardons set off a firestorm and gave birth to a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the pardons, not because they weren’t deserved or that the Governor didn’t have the authority to issue them, but rather because he allegedly hadn’t followed the notice requirements.

Today, the Mississippi Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling [PDF] holding that the pardons were valid because to rule otherwise would violate the separation of powers. All the opinions together total 77 pages, but they are worth reading from start to finish because they provide an in-depth analysis of the separation of powers and our system of checks and balances. The opinions are an enlightening walk into history underscoring the pivotal importance of the independence of the three branches of government. The granddaddy of all separation cases, Marbury v. Madison, is front and center.

Of course, while this furor isn’t about the fact that almost two hundred criminals were pardoned, it really is. People are angry for nothing other than the simple reason that some “lawless convicted felons” (a quote from the operative dissent) got some supposed windfall.

But what really, does this pardon do? Does it negate the crime? Does it negate the years of punishment? Of course not. All it does is gives some people a chance at rebuilding lives unburdened by the stigma and trappings of a criminal conviction. You can argue that some of these 198 don’t deserve it. You can argue that some people deserve to have less than meaningful opportunities as punishment for what they’ve done. You can argue that the Constitution shouldn’t give a Governor unchecked power to do as he pleases in this regard. Heck, you can amend the Constitution to do just that.

As one concurrence points out, that’s not the issue. The issue, simply, is whether judiciary can even begin to examine the exercise of authority that exclusively belongs to the executive? As the majority eloquently puts it:

the controlling issue is not whether Section 124 requires applicants for pardons to publish notice – it clearly does. The controlling issue is whether the judicial branch of  government has constitutional authority to void a facially -valid pardon issued by the coequal executive branch, where the only challenge is compliance with Section 124’s publication requirement.

In other words, the procedure for exercising executive power is within the province of the executive alone. I’m not sure which side I come out on in this issue. It’s certainly not an easy one, nor one that was made lightly, I suspect. On the one hand, the implications of holding that courts can and should review executive decisions are staggering. Can you imagine courts reviewing and inquiring into every vote taken in every legislature throughout the country? The focus of the courts’ review has to be the content of the laws passed by the legislature and the actions taken by the executive, not the process by which those laws came into creation.

But, on the other, is the danger that facially void laws come into effect: what of a bill that is signed by the Governor that has not been passed by both chambers of the legislature? That, after all, is also merely the process by which laws are made.

There is a distinction, I suppose, but one that is ever so slight. And that’s what makes this opinion fascinating. It a decision of pure Constitutional interpretation that allows us all to act as if it were still 1803.

Seeing as how I mentioned Marbury, I have to link to this re-enactment again: