MN Supreme Court blocks remake of pardon process

AG Keith Ellison (left), Gov. Tim Walz and Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.
Attorney General Keith Ellison (left), Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea meet as the Board of Pardons.
Brian Bakst | MPR News 2019

Updated 4:15 p.m.

In a quick turnaround, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Thursday that unanimous votes are required for pardons to be issued by a state board. 

A day after hearing arguments, justices overruled a lower court that had declared the process to be unconstitutional. The ruling means that the board made up of the governor, attorney general and chief justice all must be in agreement to grant a pardon.

Justice G. Barry Anderson signed the order. He sat in as presiding justice because Chief Justice Lorie Gildea was named in the case and recused herself; she was on the side of keeping the unanimity standard in place.

The Board of Pardons process dates to an 1896 constitutional amendment that took sole authority away from the governor. The Legislature followed voter approval with a law that required a unanimous verdict.

Amreya Shefa, who was denied a pardon in 2020 on a 2-1 vote, sued. DFL Gov. Tim Walz joined in arguing that his vote along with one other should be enough. 

In July, Ramsey County District Court Judge Laura Nelson sided with them in saying the process was flawed. She stopped short of saying Shefa deserved an immediate pardon in the killing of her husband, whom she accused of repeated sexual abuse.

Anderson’s order said the ruling from Nelson was in error regarding the constitutionality of the law but correct in refusing to compel a Shefa pardon.

Attorney Andy Crowder represented Shefa, whom he said is likely to be taken into custody by federal immigration authorities pending her deportation to Ethiopia. Shefa has said she fears she will be killed by relatives of her former husband.

“This is obviously a very disappointing result for her personally. It’s also a very disappointing result from my perspective for the state of Minnesota how clemency is carried out going forward. This will be something that will be very difficult to challenge in the future,” Crowder said. “It was super difficult to challenge here given how long the statute has been on the books.”

He added, “It’s my view that Minnesota is now a state where the pardon power is governed by our Legislature as opposed to our executive, which in my view is different than what people voted on in our constitution and contradicts what we should be doing.”

The case was decided quickly so the board would know the parameters for an upcoming meeting. The justices said they’ll follow up with an opinion later that explains their reasoning.

Attorney General Keith Ellison, who joined Gildea in opposing changes to the process, said he was grateful the Board of Pardons will be able to resume meeting.

“Hundreds of Minnesotans apply for pardons each year and they are counting on us to do the work that we are mandated to do,” Ellison said. “As someone who previously voted for a pardon for Ms. Shefa, I hope we will be able to rehear her case, given the threat to her life that awaits her in deportation.”

Bills introduced in the Legislature in recent years would change the standard so a unanimous vote would no longer be required. Those have stalled.

Walz said he was disappointed by the ruling but respects it. He said he hopes something can be done for Shefa but also wants the Legislature to think hard about changing the law.

“I think it just makes sense in terms of our criminal justice system, in terms of some of those reforms and just in terms of human compassion about restoring people’s ability to come back after a mistake,” Walz said.

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