The Mississippi Supreme Court's decision in In re Hooker et al, which ruled on the State's challenge to the recent gubernatorial pardons, reads like a civics lesson directed to State Attorney General Jim Hood. From the very beginning of the 6-3 decision written by Justice Dickinson, the court refers to Mr. Hood's oral argument. The court was apparently not impressed by Mr. Hood's arguments and took the opportunity to correct the wayward attorney general's understanding of the role of the judicial branch in our system of government. The court held that the constitutional provisions on the separation of powers between the three branches of government did not allow the court to review the constitutionality of the governor's pardons. The court held:
"The controlling issue is whether the judicial branch of government has the 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. No Judicial duty is more central to the proper operation of our system of government than is our duty to decide this issue correctly. In carrying out this duty, as we must, and respecting the clear constitutional provisions that separate our powers from the governor's powers, we are compelled to hold that - in each of the cases before us - it fell to the governor alone to decide whether the Constitution's publication requirement was met."
In this attorney's opinion, the Mississippi Supreme Court's holding was not only legally correct but also necessary in order to uphold the rule of law by not giving into the public sentiment of outrage brought about by the attorney general's manipulation of the media in order to sensationalize the issues in the case. We are a nation of laws and neither pressure from the media, public sentiment nor the sentiments of the attorney general should control the outcome of a case. Attorney General Hood's challenges to these pardons were based on his own personal opinions and backed by public sentiment against convicted criminals. The publication requirement was nothing more than a legal technicality.
Does anyone really believe that Jim Hood wanted to overturn the pardons granted by the former governor because he was appalled that the newspapers had said nothing about the pardons until after they were granted? It is obvious that Mr. Hood's own personal views on justice were the impetus for the challenges and the publication requirement was the only legal argument he had. The court's opinion clearly shows that the court has a much greater respect for and understanding of the law than does the attorney general.
The opinion of the court amounts to a recitation of the most basic concepts of constitutional law. It is as if it felt obliged to explain the essential nature of this countries system of government and the role of the judiciary therein. The first case the court cites Marbury v Madison, which is one of the first cases that every law student in this country studies because it is the first case in which the United States Supreme Court explained the boundaries of its jurisdiction and the importance of the separation of powers. The case explains what is justiciable [subject to judicial review] and what is not.
The court in Marbury held that it could not force James Madison, Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson, to deliver commissions signed by John Adams just before leaving office. The court reasoned that while the commissions were valid, their delivery was clearly within the powers given to the executive and thus the issue of their delivery was non-justiciable [outside of the Supreme Court's original jurisdiction]. Every attorney is familiar with the Marbury Case and it does not speak well of Mr. Hood's legal acumen for such a publicized case to be decided on such a simple legal principle.
Mr. Hood's competence aside, the court was right to decide the case based on the jurisprudence following Marbury. As I said in my earlier post on this subject, to allow the judiciary to review an executive check on the judicial branch is counterintuitive and that is exactly what the court said was the problem with reviewing the pardons. The court cited the case of Nixon v US, which involved impeachment but not of president Nixon. It involved the impeachment of a federal district court judge named Nixon. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court held:
Judicial involvement in impeachment proceedings, even if only for the purposes of judicial review, is counterintuitive because it would eviscerate the important constitutional check placed on the judiciary... (because it would) place final reviewing authority with respect to impeachments in the hands of the same body that the impeachment process was meant to regulate.
Turning to Mississippi jurisprudence regarding justiciability, the Mississippi Supreme Court then compared Mr. Hood's arguments very similar to those made inEx parte Wren., a case decided over 120 years ago in 1886. In the Wren case, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that the state courts should not review legislative procedure in passing laws because the legislators themselves take an oath to uphold the constitution in passing laws. It is the purview of the state courts to decide whether the provision of laws are constitutional. However, whether or not the legislature comported with procedural requirements provided for in the constitution was a non-justiciable issue and could not properly be reviewed by the court.
The court went on to cite Mississippi case law that I included in my last post on this topic, which clearly states that the power to grant pardons is entrusted to the governor alone. The following excerpt from Pope v Wiggins cited by the court is exactly on point:
Under §124 of the Constitution (of Mississippi) of 1890, the power to grant pardons and to otherwise extend clemency, after the judicial process whereby one has been convicted of a crime has come to an end, is vested in the governor alone... This power is no tlimited by any other provision of the State constitution, nor can the same be limited or restricted by either of the other two principle departments of the state government (the Judiciary or Legislature) in the absence of a constitutional amendment so authorizing.
What needs to be understood is that the court agrees with Mr. Hood that §124 places limitation on the governor's pardon power. However, the separation of powers doctrine places limitations on what the courts have the authority to review and it has long been held at both the state and federal level that the courts may not investigate the inner workings of other branches of government to determine whether procedural requirements are met. To say otherwise would create a super powerful judiciary with the power to review and overturn any and all actions of the legislature and executive. Our system of government places the obligation to uphold the constitution on all of the branches in exercising their powers. The court must respectfully defer to the other branches of government where they have clearly been granted powers under the constitution.
It can be assumed that Mr. Hood spent a great deal of time and resources on this case. The case was highly publicized with Mr. Hood front and center in the media spot light where he successfully influenced public opinion by sensationalizing the facts and referring to non-existent "nationwide man hunts." Mr. Hood wanted this case tried in the court of public opinion because the issues involved have been decided for more than 100 years (more than 200 years if one considers Marbury v. Madison as the basis for the decision). The Mississippi Supreme Court did well to ignore public opinion and uphold the rule of law. The court also provided a public service by explaining this country's system of government to Mississippi's attorney general. We all should hope that he was paying attention.