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Constitutional amendment to limit Ky. governor’s pardon power clears Senate committee

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ryland Heights, presents Senate Bill 10 during the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
LRC Public Information
Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ryland Heights, presents a bill during the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

A Senate committee approved a constitutional amendment Wednesday that would limit the pardons of the governor before elections and inaugurations. The bill’s sponsor says it’s designed to make sure outgoing governors don’t abuse their power.

The hundreds of pardons that former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin issued in his final weeks in office didn’t become publicly available until after Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear had already been sworn in. A bill that passed a Senate committee Wednesday aims to force governors, when issuing pardons, to do so in full sight of the electorate.

Republican Sen. Chris McDaniel from Ryland Heights is the sponsor for the constitutional amendment that would prohibit the governor from granting pardons 30 days prior to either a gubernatorial election and gubernatorial inauguration.

That would mean if the governor does not win reelection or is term limited, they would not be able to issue pardons for the final two months of their governorship.

“It is imperative to the foundational issues of justice in the Commonwealth that one individual not be able to short circuit the entirety of a justice system,” McDaniel said. “That power should not rest in one person who will never again stand accountable in front of the voters.”

McDaniel’s legislation follows a whirlwind of pardons that former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin issued in his last weeks in office. Bevin signed hundreds of pardons and commutations including for a convicted killer whose family hosted a campaign fundraiser for Bevin, and a man convicted of raping a 9-year-old girl.

The staff of the Courier Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage demonstrating the process violated legal norms and highlighted racial disparities.

McDaniel initially timed the introduction of his bill to coincide with the parole hearing of Gregory Wilson. Wilson was convicted in 1988 for the rape and death of Deborah Pooley and given the death penalty. Bevin commuted his sentence. As a result, he became eligible for parole last month, but the board declined to grant him parole.

“He should have never been eligible for parole in the first place,” McDaniel said.

Since the bill is an amendment to the Kentucky Constitution, it requires at least three-fifths of the vote in both chambers, and would then need to be approved by Kentucky voters in the November ballot.

It passed the committee unanimously, with only one pass vote. Democratic Sen. Cassie Chambers Armstrong from Louisville said she passed only because she wanted to research the bill in more depth before proceeding, although she appreciated the intent behind the bill.

“What Matt Bevin did was abhorrent,” Armstrong said. “The constitutional lawyer in me wants to talk to more stakeholders, both about the practical implications as well as the theoretical implications for the separation of powers.”

Republican Sen. Greg Elkins from Winchester supported the measure, saying governors should not be able to wait until they are “no longer accountable to the voters" before making such important decisions.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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