SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- The Illinois Supreme Court ruled yesterday that former governor George Ryan had the power to commute the sentences of everyone on the state's death row before he left office last year.
The Republican governor commuted the sentences of 167 inmates and pardoned four others, acting three years after he had halted all state executions over concerns of unjust convictions.
The state attorney general challenged Ryan's constitutional authority in 32 of the cases, arguing some of the inmates hadn't sought clemency as required by state law and others didn't have death sentences at the time because their cases were being appealed.
The high court disagreed. "We believe that the grant of authority given the governor . . . is sufficiently broad to allow former governor Ryan to do what he did," Justice Bob Thomas wrote for the majority.
No dissents were filed, though the justices added that they felt pardons and commutations should be handled individually, rather than in the mass fashion Ryan used when he cleared death row.
Ryan said in a phone interview that he was "delighted" with the ruling, "but not surprised."
"I think it gives us an opportunity to move on," Ryan said. He added that he reviewed each case and had no regrets about the blanket clemency.
Larry Marshall, a Northwestern University law professor who represented some of the inmates, said the ruling "puts an end at last to a very sorry chapter in Illinois criminal history."
Ryan issued the moratorium on executions after it was discovered that 13 Illinois death row inmates had been wrongly convicted, prompting fears that a flawed criminal justice system could lead to others unjustly being condemned.
State lawmakers approved a package of bills last spring designed to reform the death penalty system, including giving the Supreme Court greater power to toss out unjust verdicts, letting defendants have more access to evidence, and barring the death penalty in cases that depend on a single witness.
This week, Governor Rod Blagojevich declared the state's death penalty reforms complete, though he said he would wait to see how they affected future trials before lifting the execution moratorium.
"Public faith in our state's criminal justice system has been shaken over recent years," state Attorney General Lisa Madigan said yesterday in a written statement. "It is my hope that today's Supreme Court ruling -- combined with much-needed and groundbreaking death penalty reforms -- will help restore confidence in the integrity and effectiveness of that system."
Two inmates have been sent to death row since the blanket commutations.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office, backed by prosecutors throughout the state, had filed the lawsuit challenging the 32 Ryan commutations, arguing that Ryan had overstepped his power. Twenty-one of the inmates didn't seek clemency as required by law, and 14 didn't have death sentences at the time because their sentences had been overturned and they were awaiting resentencing. Three fell into both categories.
The justice wrote yesterday that the law requiring inmates to file petitions in the clemency process was never intended to limit the governor's power. In the cases under appeal, the justices said that Ryan essentially issued a "partial pardon" by ruling out the death penalty for them.
Attorneys representing the state's executive branch, supported by death penalty critics and former governor Jim Thompson, had argued that the governor's power to grant pardons, reprieves, and commutations cannot be overturned because the state Constitution grants that authority to be used on "such terms as he thinks proper."
In a statement released yesterday, Madigan said, "It is my hope that today's Supreme Court's ruling -- combined with much-needed and groundbreaking death penalty reforms -- will help restore confidence in the integrity and effectiveness of that system."
Ryan, 69, was nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for his actions involving the death penalty.
He also is under indictment in a racketeering case, accused last month by a federal grand jury of taking payoffs and gifts in return for letting associates profit from state contracts when he was Illinois secretary of state in the 1990s.