Minnesota Supreme Court Limits Governor’s Pardon Powers

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled against Governor Walz’s attempt to grant pardons without unanimity in Shefa v. Ellison. In Minnesota, the statute governing pardons states that the board of pardons consists of three members: the governor, the attorney general, and the chief justice of the supreme court. Another provision of the statute states that the board must vote unanimously to grant a pardon. Governor Walz argued that the statute violates the Governor’s pardoning powers as described in the Minnesota Constitution and that pardons that receive the majority of the board’s votes should be granted.

If a person receives a pardon, they are no longer required to disclose their criminal conduct and they will no longer be punished or penalized for the offense. There may be different conditions to the pardon, and depending on the crime, some pardon candidates are not statutorily eligible for pardons until they have served their time for the crime, and a certain number of years have passed since the crime was discharged. However, a pardon does not have the same function as an expungement in the sense that a pardon does not seal the person’s records.

The pardon statute was challenged in response to the denial of a pardon for Amreya Shefa, who received two of the three board members votes. Shefa served time for the murder of her husband whom she accused of stabbing and raping her. After Shefa served her sentence, she sought a pardon out of fear that she would be deported to Ethiopia and killed by her late husband’s relatives. Governor Walz along with Shefa’s attorney fought to reform the statute, so the 2-1 vote would be enough to grant Shefa’s pardon. Immigrants that have not obtained legal status in the United States or have conditions to their green card may be deported for committing any criminal offense. Since murder is an offense that cannot be expunged, a pardon is Shefa’s only option to avoid deportation and further punishment for the murder of her husband.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, absent Chief Justice Gildea, determined that the unanimity requirement to grant pardons does not violate the separation-of-powers provision. The court reasoned that the pardon provision explicitly includes the chief justice’s participation in the pardon process. Pardon procedures and rules are set by the state. Most states give full pardoning power to the governor. Other states also utilize a board or require the governor to consult with the parole board before granting pardons. However, Minnesota is one of a few states that require a unanimous vote to grant a pardon.

Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense attorney and DWI attorney in Washington County, Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past six years; and the National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past seven years. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. DWI Attorney Woodbury MN; Criminal Defense Attorney Washington County MN; and Expungement Lawyer Minnesota.