By Robbie Ward
JACKSON, Miss (Reuters) - Most of about 200 pardons of convicted felons granted by former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour should be voided because they did not follow procedures set out in the state constitution, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood told a state Supreme Court hearing on Thursday.
"I believe there has been a violation of the people's constitutional rights and this court should correct it," Hood, the only Democrat holding a statewide office, told the high court.
Conservative Republican Barbour sparked an uproar when he issued some 200 pardons last month as he completed eight years in office. Among them were five inmates in prison and five others who had worked at the governor's mansion doing odd jobs, four of whom were serving life sentences for murder.
Hood has asked the court to void those 10 pardons and said he would challenge some others later.
About two-thirds of Barbour's pardons were to whites and a third to blacks while Mississippi's prison population is roughly the reverse, two-thirds black and a third white.
During more than three hours of oral arguments on Thursday, court justices peppered the attorneys with questions about whether the court has the authority to rule on the pardons.
Hood's challenge to the pardons hinges on an obscure provision of the state constitution that requires the felon seeking a pardon to publish the request in a newspaper 30 days in advance.
Hood told the state Supreme Court on Thursday that only 22 of the pardons had fulfilled the constitutional requirement and all others should be voided.
Attorneys for some of those pardoned by Barbour said the publication provision was a technical issue. The power over pardons rested exclusively with the governor and the Supreme Court does not have the authority to overturn them under the separation of powers in the constitution.
"It can't be understated how religiously they guarded the separation of powers," Tom Fortner, a lawyer for four of the pardoned felons, said of the founding fathers who drew up the state constitution.
Sitting in the courtroom, some family of victims of people who received pardons listened, and some spoke to the press after the hearing.
Mary McAbee, the sister of Ricky Montgomery, who was murdered by Joseph Ozment, one of the pardoned men who worked at the Governor's Mansion, said she hoped the state Supreme Court would overturn the pardons. After receiving a pardon from Barbour, Ozment moved to Wyoming, and has not returned.
McAbee said Barbour never consulted with victims' families before issuing the pardons.
"We weren't given time to speak with the governor," she said. "Had he heard us, he might have made another decision."
The closest comparison to the current Mississippi lawsuit is when Richard Celeste, a Republican governor of Ohio, issued several commutations and pardons just before leaving office in 1994. A Democratic attorney general, Lee Fisher, challenged the move in court, saying Celeste failed to follow a state constitutional provision that required him to seek the advice of a parole board, even though he was not bound to follow it.
Celeste's attorneys argued that the provision was merely procedural, but the Ohio Supreme Court invalidated one of the pardons based on the constitutional requirement.
Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice William Waller said the court would not decide the issue on Thursday and would rule in "due course."
(Additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Greg McCune)