A simmering dispute between Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea prompted the postponement this week of the state pardon board's first scheduled meeting of the year.
The two — who with Attorney General Keith Ellison form the three-person board — are at odds over how to respond to a recent court ruling that the state law requiring pardon seekers to win unanimous approval from the board is unconstitutional.
Days before the three officials were scheduled to consider 34 applications on Monday, Gildea wrote in a letter to Walz and Ellison that the board had "no choice but to postpone" until the appellate process ran its course after the Ramsey County District Court ruling in April.
"Given that ruling, we cannot give applicants certainty on their requests for relief and taking preliminary steps on applications risks doubt as to the effectiveness of those steps," Gildea wrote in a June 15 letter obtained by the Star Tribune.
The April ruling came in a lawsuit filed by a woman seeking a pardon for a manslaughter sentence she served for killing her husband after she said he stabbed and raped her. Amreya Shefa sued after her pardon request was denied despite Walz and Ellison casting votes in her favor while Gildea voted against her case.
Gildea's letter prompted a sharply worded rebuke from Walz late last week in which he wrote that he was "disappointed" at the news that the chief justice was "refusing" to attend Monday's meeting. He added that Gildea had "construed" the Ramsey County court ruling to mean that the board could not meet or grant pardons.
"Your position is unfounded, and it is also directly harmful to the applicants who have a right to have their applications heard in a timely manner," Walz wrote on June 17. "Pardons to deserving applicants have an immeasurable impact on their lives. People who have pardons granted often leave the meeting in tears, knowing they received redemption and a second chance after demonstrating hard-earned rehabilitation from crimes committed decades ago. The individuals who would have been heard this month have had their applications pending for at least six months. These are real people with real stories."
Walz backs majority vote
Walz has supported Shefa's court challenge and has also called for legislation that would allow pardon applications to be approved by majority, not unanimous, votes.
Among those who had applications scheduled to be considered this week, Walz wrote, were a pair of 71-year-old Minnesotans who have not reoffended for more than four decades. One of the applicants is a U.S. Marines veteran seeking a pardon for a 1980 marijuana possession conviction because he wants to be allowed to hunt with a firearm.
"These Minnesotans deserve to have their applications heard," Walz wrote. "All Minnesotans are entitled to have those of us in whom they have placed public trust work together to ensure that their government functions for them."
In 12 cases since Walz and Ellison took office in 2019, the two Democratic elected officials have voted to approve a pardon while Gildea — appointed to the state's high court by GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty — voted against.
In her letter, Gildea also argued that she risked "undermining the people's confidence in the district court" if she participated as chief justice on the pardon board meeting despite the Ramsey County judge having "declared some of the statutes under which the board operates unconstitutional."
"The way to resolve disputes over the district court's ruling is not to continue to act under statutes declared unconstitutional but through the normal appellate process," Gildea wrote.
Though his office is responsible for appealing the Ramsey County lawsuit, Ellison also wrote last week in favor of holding Monday's scheduled meeting.
In a statement Wednesday, Ellison added that it was "unfair to the 34 current applicants for a pardon that the Board will not hear their cases."
"I'm also concerned about future applicants, some of whom have waited decades to come before the Board, unless we find a way to hear these matters as soon as possible," Ellison said. "A pardon presents a real opportunity for people to improve their lives and move forward with dignity and respect."
Both Walz and Ellison proposed that while the appeal continues, the board can still grant pardon applications where all three members vote in favor and deny when two or more vote against. They meanwhile suggested deferring action on applications that receive a single no vote until after the appeal in Shefa's case is completed.
The April court decision, Ellison wrote, "introduces an element of uncertainty only for applicants in which one member of the board votes against a pardon but that uncertainty does not create a hardship for the applicant because the current statute mandates denial of the pardon."
In the Ramsey County case, Shefa and Walz argued that under the state Constitution the governor still maintained pardon powers that were separate from the rest of the board, thus making it possible for a 2-1 vote to be enough to approve a pardon.
In her ruling, Ramsey County District Judge Laura Nelson agreed that the governor "has some pardon power or duty separate or apart from the Board of Pardons." Nelson concluded that the law governing the state's pardon board was unconstitutional because it does not explain how power should be divided between its members.
Ability to act during appeal
Barry Landy, an attorney representing Walz in the Ramsey County case, also asked Nelson on Wednesday to issue an expedited ruling to clarify her April decision "to ensure that the Board of Pardons can continue to meet and act on pending applications at least twice each year" while the appeals process continues. The parties are scheduled to hold a hearing in Ramsey County on Thursday.
University of St. Thomas School of Law Prof. Mark Osler, who has helped draft proposals to change state pardon board laws, said he hoped the Legislature would have read Nelson's order "as a directive to action" but feared time was running out for that to happen this year.
"It is an important constitutional question that will hopefully get the deliberation it deserves in the courts and in the Legislature," Osler said.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755