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Bill tweaking Ky. governor’s pardon power advances in legislature

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Kentucky governors wouldn’t be able to issue pardons or commutations in the final months of their time in office under a bill that passed out of a state Senate committee on Wednesday.

The measure comes in response to several controversial pardons former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin issued on his way out of office in 2019.

Though Kentucky governors have always issued last-minute reprieves, Bevin’s actions sparked outrage because they involved convicted murderers and rapists, including a man whose family donated to the governor’s failed reelection campaign.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Republican from Taylor Mill, said the pardon power needs to be reformed.

“This amendment will prevent any more hiding in the darkness in the last minutes of the administration. There will be no more allowing the rich and powerful to influence the scales of justice without the recourse of the voters, of the citizens of the commonwealth,” McDaniel said.

The measure would restrict governors from issuing pardons starting 30 days before an election, until Inauguration Day, which takes place in mid-December.

Since it would amend the state constitution, the bill would need to be approved by 60% of each legislative chamber and by a majority of voters during a referendum on Election Day.

The proposal passed out of the Senate Local Government Committee on Wednesday with an 8-2 vote and now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

Sen. Denise Harper Angel, a Democrat from Louisville, voted against the bill, saying the former governor’s actions shouldn’t compel lawmakers to change how the pardon power works going forward.

“Simply because the former governor made some unconscionable pardons doesn’t mean the current governor or future governors would do the same, and I think the bill’s unnecessary,” Harper Angel said.

Supporters of the pardon power say it’s an important avenue for people to clear their names after they’ve exhausted all chances in the judicial system.

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear granted 201 pardons and six commutations in the final hours of his term in 2015.

During his last week in office in 2007, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher granted dozens of pardons to people convicted of a variety of offenses, including murder, drug charges and burglary.

Democratic Gov. Paul Patton commuted the sentence of a man on death row on his last day in office in 2003. At the time, Patton said he had determined about 200 pardon applications were justified but decided against granting them.

Sen. Phillip Wheeler, a Republican from Pikeville, cast doubt on the entire pardon process, saying the action shows a governor “doesn’t respect” the judicial process.

“We were not set up as a kingdom where one person can wholesale reject these principles,” Wheeler said.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.