For 15 days, Texas Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, got a taste of what it is like to be the state’s governor… a small taste though. While Gov. Rick Perry was out of state on the presidential campaign trail (he dropped out of the race Thursday), the duty to lead has fallen to Jackson – the Senate president pro tempore – from time to time, thanks to a section of the Texas Constitution written well over a century ago.
Perry’s office said he can still handle most of his tasks while away by cell phone and computer, but there are some things the “acting” governor must step in to oversee in person at home. For Jackson, such a circumstance has only arisen once since the title fell into his lap late last spring. On May 29, Perry’s office briefed Jackson on an upcoming execution of death row inmate Milton Mathis, because both the governor and Lt. David Dewhurst (who is in line to lead before Jackson) planned to be out of state for much of June.
“It’s really serious business, and I’ll be here in the event I’m needed.”
The case before him was a controversial one. Mathis, 32, was sentenced to death in 1999, convicted of killing two people and critically injuring a third during a drug house shooting west of Houston. His sentence came three years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled executions of the mentally retarded violated the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
In 2000, the Texas Department of Corrections tested Mathis’s IQ in the low 60s, well under the level for mild mental retardation recognized in most states. In 2001, Perry vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that would have banned the execution of the mentally retarded. In 2005, a Texas court rejected Mathis’ claims of mental impairment, and subsequent courts chose not to overturn the verdict.
Just weeks before Mathis was to be executed by lethal injection at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, Jackson was spared that life-or-death decision of a pardon for Mathis, as his acting governor duties were no longer necessary. Due to the need for a special legislative session, Dewhurst canceled a planned trip to France in order to remain at the State Capitol.
Perry’s office reportedly said the governor could not offer Mathis clemency or a reprieve without a recommendation from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which had rejected that possibility. The Supreme Court also rejected a final request for a stay of execution by Mathis’ attorneys. He was pronounced dead at 6:53 p.m. on June 21.
“(It was) a decision that I would really rather not have to make,” Jackson said.