January 12th, 2012
10:37 AM ET

What's behind the battle over Mississippi governor's pardons?

Editor's note: CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin weighs in to help explain the details of a battle brewing after former Republican Gov. Haley Barbour approved full pardons for nearly 200 people.

The announcement that outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour approved full pardons for nearly 200 people, including 14 murderers, has sparked an angry reaction.

Among those pardoned, four convicted murderers and a convicted armed robber have already been released. A judge issued a temporary injunction forbidding the release of any more prisoners Barbour pardoned or gave clemency to before leaving office this week. A circuit court judge issued an injunction, saying it appeared that some pardons, including those for four murderers, did not meet the state's requirement that pardon requests be published 30 days before they are granted.

We've asked CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin to help explain what Barbour did, the criticism he's drawn, and what his actions could mean for those pardoned and for the public.

Q: What is an unconditional pardon? Does it mean that you are fully cleared? Would a background check still reveal your record?

Toobin: A pardon is essentially equivalent to never having been charged at all. You are fully cleared. You can vote and buy guns and do anything else a nonconvict can.

The background check issue is more complicated. It probably varies by state, and by how thorough the checks are.

Q: How often are unconditional pardons given?

Toobin: They are rare, but virtually all governors (and presidents) pardon some people. A group this large is very rare, and Barbour pardoned many more people than most governors. Pardons are often done at the end of a term, when the voters cannot retaliate.

President Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich, a fugitive financier, was very controversial. Likewise, Mike Huckabee's pardons of individuals who went on to commit terrible crimes were big issues. In most states, and the federal government, no reason need be given for a pardon.

Q: What is the concern the attorney general has about the pardons?

Toobin: The basic claim is that at least some of these people are still too dangerous to be released. Their crimes were too horrific to merit the extraordinary gift of a pardon.

In technical legal terms, the AG claims that Barbour violated the provision of the Mississippi Constitution that says an applicant for a pardon must publish his request in a local newspaper at least 30 days before the governor may grant a pardon. There will be a court hearing on January 23 to determine if those newspaper notices were published for all the pardoned convicts.

Q: Do I have the right to know if I am, for example, working with a convicted murderer?

Toobin: It's true that the crime victims are the most outraged, for understandable reasons.

Others are also concerned that there is a problem of cronyism here - that Barbour pardoned convicts who worked in his mansion, not those who were the most deserving.

If these pardons hold up, there will be no requirement that these former prisoners disclose to anyone that they were formerly in prison. Their neighbors and co-workers may never know, which of course is a cause for concern.

Q: Do you know of any case(s) where a governor has issued an unconditional pardon that was legally challenged and overturned? 

Toobin:  There may have been some pardons in history that have been overturned, but I am unaware of any. It's one of the oldest powers of heads of state, going back to before the American Revolution. Historically, it has been an absolute unreviewable power. It cannot be overturned by the legislature or any court.

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Filed under: Courts • Crime • Justice • Mississippi
soundoff (135 Responses)
  1. David Arp

    I really like to hear what Jeffrey Toobin has to say on a legal issue. He does not try to sensationalize it but tries to lay the issue out in a plain and matter of fact way which is easy to understand. In my opinion he is one of the best CNN annalists.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jimh77

    There is only one answer for this Ex Gov. The Gallows! Insane what he did.

    January 12, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mmmmm

    regardless of the details I am concern this judge and attorney general are over stepping their boundaries...who are they to overturn a pardon...the judge and attorney general are abusing their powers they need to be impeached they are rearranging powers, illicitly. their offices function to condemn people not to vindicate. the pardons are an independent option to which they are attempting to illicitly subjugate to their office and that's a no-no. Someone need to charge this judge and attorney general for stepping out of bounds. if the govenor violated the law then charge the govenor for the judge and attorney general have jurisdiction over pardons. these prisoners should get an attorney to represent them for unlawful imprisonment. To the people of Mississippi be careful who you elect to office.

    January 12, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      correction: judge and attorney DO NOT have jurisdiction over pardons.

      January 12, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mmmmm

    this process of review is also illicit...who is doing this review and under what power?you're bypassing the will of the people and its elected representative bypassing its a power...which is treason. govenor office is a separate and apart from state legislature and state judicial power. you also confusing an invocation of power vs decision. neither the attorney general or judge has jurisdiction over. cardinal rule of civic laws you don't mess with powers which are the check and balances...they cause injustices and civil wars

    January 12, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Deborah

    Another Republican governor who thinks that he knows better than the victim's families and the judicial system..... these guys are incredible..... go ahead and keep voting for these right wing religious fanatics and in a few years this country will be ruled by fascism.

    January 12, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      nobody should be realigning powers of goverments from the bench.

      January 12, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jimh77

    I'd like to know the mental status of this Gov. Maybe he has a mental condition , quite possibility related to the USDA/FDA approval of GMO, Monsanto related comntaminated ???.

    January 12, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. tfuller

    Officials from Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens and Cannada, PLLC, a law firm based in Ridgeland with offices around the country, announced Wednesday that Barbour and his former chief of staff, Paul Hurst, will join the firm. i guess the "officials" at Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens and Cannada, PLLC consider turning criminals loose a good "marketing tool" Main Phone (601) 948-5711

    January 13, 2012 at 12:48 am | Report abuse |
  8. tfuller

    barbour has belittled the victims of these criminals to what timothy mcveigh referred to as "collateral damage".

    January 13, 2012 at 12:50 am | Report abuse |
  9. JQpublic

    Although I don't have all the pertinent information, it seems that Mr. Barbour has ignored public safety and welfare.

    January 13, 2012 at 4:23 am | Report abuse |
  10. Mary D.

    I think if these prisoners kill someone else, then Mr Barbour should be held accountable. He did not publish these
    prisoners names, which is required 30 days in advance. What about all the witnesses that testified in court and the
    the child that was found lying on the floor covered in blood. This is terrible, there is a lot of people that are terrified right

    January 13, 2012 at 6:21 am | Report abuse |
  11. Lookidat

    To all you left wing liberals who cannot differentiate between the actions of one man, and a population of a state: Your comments show a complete ignorance. The people of Ms are just as enraged as everyone else. When you make the comments about the ignorant people of Ms, you are demonstrating a narrow-mindedness that you are so fond of accusing the conservatives of. Also, as to the accusations of racism, I don't know of any state having a monopoly on that either. I seem to recall back during segregation, people were shooting SCHOOL BUSES in the Carolinas, yet I don't automatically assume that everyone in the Carolinas is an in-bred racist! I understand that those are the actions of a minuscule portion of the community, and that the overwhelming majority of the populace are good people who abhor those actions. This is a classic example of liberals believing that everyone should have their own opinion, as long as it agrees with yours. It is amazing to me that all of the liberals keep pointing out that the dumb rednecks of Ms insist on being a "red state", and are incensed about it! Here is a novel idea, how about we take politics out of it, and judge each person on their individual merits and actions. Or is it more fun to look down your noses at an entire state and spew racist and slanderous dribble so that you can inflate your own ego?

    January 13, 2012 at 8:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Mmmmm

      lol...maybe dah govinerrr is tryin' tah farm a panel of brain trust...

      January 13, 2012 at 8:53 am | Report abuse |
    • LD

      You complain about "liberals" painting everyone in MS with a broad brush, then you turn around and state "all liberals" blah, blah, blah...Now who is showing their ignorance?

      January 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mmmmm

    @maryd it does not any make sense to wish additional harm on the public. efforts should focus on if these actions are based on corruption or payouts or favors...whether there's any correlation between his pardon activity and asset activity...If he is guilty he joins the ex-govenor's in jail club.

    January 13, 2012 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  13. ronvan

    Absolutly unbeleivable! It is one thing to pardon someone found innocent after being convicted, but 200 with a pen stroke, without review or notification makes me think Barber thinks he is God! And I totally agree that if ANY of these criminals commit another crime, hopefully not murder, that he should be tried, in court, as a co-conspirator and sent to jail!

    January 13, 2012 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
  14. bigwilliestyles

    So Haley Barbour has proven that he is ignorant, vindictive and sleazy. He is a republican; while I may be shocked, I am not the least bit surprised. Nor would I be to find out that someone receiving a pardon had been 'Sanduskyed' prior to the pardon. Larry Craig anyone?

    January 13, 2012 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  15. Tom

    I completely understand why he did this. Most of them were already free, and working for him in some capacity at his mansion. Thomas Jefferson did something very similar to this right before he died too.

    January 13, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • R J

      The 4 murderers who were working at the Gov. Mansion were not out of prison and they received pardons.

      January 13, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
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