JACKSON, Miss. — Feuding attorneys asked the Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday to determine the validity of pardons that Haley Barbour gave to convicted killers and other convicts during his final days as governor.
Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said the court would not rule Thursday, but he didn't say when a decision would come.
"We want them to take enough time to do it right," said Randy Walker, who objects to the pardons. Walker was shot in the head in 1993 by one of the men Barbour set free last month. That former inmate, David Gatlin, also fatally shot his own estranged wife as she held the couple's baby.
At the heart of the dispute is Section 124 of the Mississippi Constitution, which says "no pardon shall be granted" by the governor until the convicted felon applying for the pardon publishes notice of that application for 30 days in a newspaper in or near the county where the crime was committed.
Justices could uphold the pardons, as requested by a private attorney representing Republican Barbour. Or they could declare the pardons invalid, as requested by Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. If they agree with Hood that the 30-day publication is a must, they could send the pardons back to a lower court, where a circuit judge could hold a trial to determine whether the pardons met those requirements.
Hood 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.
"It's a constitutional right of the people to have that notice," Hood told the nine justices Thursday during more than three hours of oral arguments.
Barbour, who once considered a 2012 White House run, was limited to two terms as governor. He pardoned 198 people before finishing his second term Jan. 10, including four convicted murderers and a robber who worked as trusties at the Governor's Mansion. His actions outraged victims' families.
Most of the people he pardoned were already out of prison, and some had finished serving their sentences decades ago. The five trusties were released from custody before Hood filed a lawsuit challenging the pardons. A circuit judge granted Hood's request for a temporary restraining order that blocked the release of five other convicted felons who received pardons, and they remain in prison pending the outcome of the legal battle.
Barbour was not in the courtroom during Thursday's arguments, nor were the five former trusties, one of whom has gone to Wyoming.
Several relatives of people killed by the pardoned trusties were in the courtroom. Mary McAbee, whose brother was slain, said afterward that she's praying that the justices "will listen and have their hearts open" to God.
Waller admonished attorneys at the beginning of the hearing to focus their arguments narrowly on the legal questions at hand.
"I don't want any political sound bites. I don't want any jury arguments. No grandstanding. No sniping. Everybody understand?" Waller said. The nine justices are elected in nonpartisan contests.
Attorney Thomas Fortner, who represents four of the former trusties, said past cases suggest pardons are not reviewable by the courts.
"The governor, as the chief executive, is granted the power to pardon and is the judge of the propriety of the publication," Fortner 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, the court would be "getting into the deliberative process that the constitution gives to the governor," Griffin said.
Barbour has said he's at peace with the pardons because his Christian faith teaches about redemption. He has accused Hood of challenging the pardons for partisan political reasons.
Although the arguments Thursday were only about the 10 inmates who were in custody when pardoned, those who received pardons after being out for years could lose their chance to have their rights restored, including their rights to vote and to buy firearms.
Hood has said the proper public notice was provided in the cases of only about two dozen of those pardoned. None of the former Governor's Mansion trusties met the requirement, he said.
Barbour also granted medical release and conditional clemency to some inmates, but they weren't required to give public notice of their release.
Waller asked Hood whether people pardoned by past governors had met the 30 days' publication requirement. Hood said he didn't know the history of every governor, but he had a document showing the actions of Bill Waller Sr., the chief justice's father, who served as governor from 1972 to 1976.
A document provided by Hood's office shows Gov. Waller on May 28, 1974, issued a document to correct the paperwork on a pardon originally issued by his predecessor, Gov. John Bell Williams, in 1967. The document from Gov. Waller notes that under Williams, the person seeking the pardon did not give 30 days' notice. It says that by May 1974: "Subject has complied with the provisions of Section 124, Article 5, Mississippi Constitution of 1890 by publishing his petition for the pardon for the time and manner provided thereby."
The justices questioned Hood about the role that one of his staff attorneys 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 assistant attorney general David Scott, who is assigned to do legal work for the state Department of Corrections. Barbour has included text messages in court records between Scott and a Barbour assistant in which they discuss the publication statute.
"The governor can't shirk the duty and blame it on someone else no matter who it is," Hood said.