Kentucky Senate supports constitutional change to restrict end-of-term gubernatorial pardon powers

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The GOP-dominated Kentucky Senate endorsed a proposed constitutional change Wednesday to limit a governor's end-of-term pardon powers, reflecting the outrage still burning over pardons granted by the state's last Republican governor on his way out of office in 2019.

The measure seeks to amend the state’s constitution to suspend a governor's ability to grant pardons or commute sentences in the 30 days before a gubernatorial election and the time between the election and inauguration. The restriction essentially amounts to two months of a governor's four-year term.

“This proposed amendment would ensure that a governor is accountable to the voters for his or her actions,” state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the measure's lead sponsor, said in a statement after the Senate vote.

The proposal sailed to Senate passage on a 34-2 tally to advance to the House. Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers. If it wins House approval, the proposal would be placed on the November statewide ballot for voters to decide the issue.

The measure is meant to guarantee what happened at the end of former Gov. Matt Bevin’s term never occurs again in the Bluegrass State. During his final weeks in office, Bevin issued more than 600 pardons and commutations — several of them stirring outrage from victims or their families, prosecutors and lawmakers. Bevin's actions came as he was preparing to leave office, having lost his reelection bid in 2019.

While presenting his bill Wednesday, McDaniel read newspaper headlines chronicling some of Bevin’s pardons. The Courier Journal in Louisville earned a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of Bevin’s actions.

McDaniel also put the spotlight on the case of Gregory Wilson, who was convicted decades ago for the rape and death of a woman. Wilson was sentenced to the death penalty, but Bevin commuted his sentence to life with the possibility of parole after 30 years. The state parole board recently decided that Wilson must serve out the remainder of his life sentence.

Another high-profile Bevin pardon was granted to Patrick Baker, whose family had political connections to the Republican governor, including hosting a fundraiser for him. Baker was pardoned for a 2014 drug robbery killing but later was convicted for the same slaying in federal court. He was sentenced to 42 years in prison. A federal appellate court upheld the conviction.

McDaniel has pushed for the same constitutional change to put limits on gubernatorial pardon powers since 2020, but he has so far been unable to get the measure through the entire legislature. On Wednesday, he called his proposal a “reasonable solution to a glaring hole in the commonwealth’s constitution.”

The proposal won bipartisan Senate support Wednesday.

Democratic state Sen. Reginald Thomas stressed there have been “no allegations, nor any innuendos of wrongdoing” regarding current Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's use of his pardon powers. Beshear defeated Bevin in 2019 and won reelection last year in one of the nation's most closely watched elections.

“This is a reaction to the previous governor, Gov. Bevin, and his obvious misuse of that pardon power,” Thomas said.

The proposed restriction on gubernatorial pardon powers is competing with several other proposed constitutional amendments being considered by lawmakers for placement on Kentucky's November ballot.

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The legislation is Senate Bill 126.

Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press