What is a Pardon?
A pardon allows a person to be relieved of some, or all, of the legal consequences resulting from a criminal conviction. Pardons grant clemency and mercy to those that have demonstrated their subsequent rehabilitation. In Minnesota, fewer than a third of the pardon applications the Board of Pardons considers each year is granted, largely because unanimous support has been required to approve a pardon over the last several decades.
Under the Minnesota Constitution, the Board of Pardons has the power to grant pardons after a conviction for an offense “against the state.” The Board of Pardons is made up of the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Chief Justice of the Minnesota State Supreme Court. The Board may grant a conditional or absolute pardon to people currently serving a sentence and may grant a pardon extraordinary to people who have completed their sentences.
Types of Pardons
An absolute pardon releases the person from punishment and restores the person’s civil rights without qualification while a conditional pardon adds certain terms and conditions to the pardon. A pardon extraordinary restores all rights not otherwise regained after they completed their sentence and “sets aside” the conviction. A person who receives a pardon extraordinary will no longer be required to disclose the conviction, unless required in a judicial proceeding or as part of the licensing process for police officers. A pardon extraordinary, however, does not expunge or seal the person’s record.
Future of Pardons in Minnesota
For the last 100 years, a pardon could not be issued without a unanimous decision by the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Chief Justice. Recently, however, this unanimity requirement was challenged in court.
In April 2021, a Ramsey County judge ruled that the requirement that pardon seekers receive unanimous support from the Board of Pardons was unconstitutional. The Judge ruled that the Minnesota Constitution grants the governor the power to pardon separately from the Board of Pardons, making it possible for a 2-1 vote to be sufficient to approve a pardon. The Judge held that the statute outlining pardons does not explain how the power should be divided amongst the Board of Pardons members and thus violates the Minnesota Constitution.
Because of the ongoing appeals process following this decision and the chance that it may be overturned, uncertainty remains regarding the future of pardons in Minnesota. A few days before the first Board of Pardons meeting scheduled after this decision, Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Gildea sent a letter to Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison stating the Board should postpone the meeting until the appellate process finishes.
Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison disagreed. They believe the Board should still grant pardons where there is unanimity and deny pardons when two or more members vote “no” while the appeal is pending. They proposed that action be deferred on pardons where there are only two “yes” votes until after the appeal is completed.
In early July 2021, the Ramsey County Judge clarified her decision indicating that the Board should continue to meet while the appeal is pending. Weeks later, however, the Spring 2021 meeting has still not been rescheduled. It is unclear whether the Board will delay meeting until their next scheduled meeting in December of 2021.