The Minnesota Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the law requiring unanimous approval by the state's Board of Pardons is constitutional, dealing a major blow to Gov. Tim Walz's efforts to reshape how pardons are granted.
Walz had sought the ability to grant pardons with only one additional member of the board — on which he serves, along with the attorney general and chief justice — rather than needing a 3-0 vote to approve pardon applications.
"I respect the Supreme Court's ruling," Walz said, noting that he wanted the board to take another look at the woman's case at the heart of the lawsuit.
Ruling a day after oral arguments in the case, the justices on Thursday overturned an April lower court ruling that found part of the 125-year-old statute governing the board unconstitutional because it did not explain how power should be divided on the board.
The Supreme Court issued a brief two-page order, with a more detailed legal analysis to follow at a later date, "so as not to impair the orderly function of the board of pardons," Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote. All parties in the case agreed to an expedited decision under such terms because the legal uncertainty prompted by the case has kept the board from meeting so far this year. It is required to meet twice a year to consider pardon applications.
Walz had sided with a lawsuit filed by a woman who unsuccessfully sought a pardon for a manslaughter sentence she served for killing her husband after she said he stabbed and raped her. Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison voted to grant Amreya Shefa's request to be pardoned, but Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea did not agree.
Shefa has said that she also fears deportation back to Ethiopia, where she believes she will be killed by her husband's family out of revenge.
Gildea recused herself from the case because of her role on the board and as a party to the lawsuit. Gildea and Walz have been at odds over whether the board could still meet while this case was pending.
The chief justice told Walz in June that the board had no choice but to postpone its first scheduled meeting to consider a batch of 34 applications until the constitutional question over the board's statute was resolved by the courts. Walz responded that he was "disappointed" upon learning that Gildea was "refusing" to attend the meeting.
A spokesperson for the governor's office said after Thursday's ruling that the board is now expected to hold its two meetings in November and December, respectively, while considering about 34 applications at each meeting.
The governor has also urged the divided Minnesota Legislature to pass a new law codifying his view that the governor's vote, plus a vote from one more member of the board, be sufficient to grant pardons. However, such legislation has not gained traction during Walz's term.
Ellison — who voted to grant Shefa's pardon but whose office also defended the statute in court — said he was grateful that the court resolution would let the board get back to work. He added that he hopes the board can rehear Shefa's case, "given the threat to her life that awaits her in deportation."
During oral arguments this week, justices appeared more skeptical of arguments from attorneys for Walz and Shefa, asking multiple times whether they were asking the court to "read words into the constitution" that were not there.
Justices inquired how language in the statute regarding the governor's pardon power signaled that he needed just one and not two of the other members to vote with him. They also pointed out that they could not find anything in the constitution that either prohibits or mandates unanimity.
Andy Crowder, Shefa's attorney, argued that the unanimous vote requirement went against constitutional language that gives the governor pardon power "in conjunction with the board," because Walz was working with the board when he voted to grant Shefa's pardon request.
Also before the Supreme Court was Shefa and Walz's request that the governor be allowed to issue her a pardon. Ramsey County Judge Laura Nelson denied that request. Anderson wrote Thursday that the Supreme Court would not be taking up that question because of its findings that the pardon board law is constitutional.
Taken together, the Supreme Court ruling and most of Nelson's April court decision sends all future debate over the Board of Pardons' power structure back to the Legislature.
Walz said Thursday that Minnesota issues fewer pardons and commutations than almost any other state.
"Restorative justice is predicated on this ability that if someone pays their debt or they do their time, that there's an opportunity … for restorative justice," said Walz, who again said he wanted the Legislature to take a look at the way the pardon board is structured and consider changes. "I'm not sure the sovereign right of clemency that almost every other state has is not true in Minnesota in that we have to have this unanimous vote."
Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.