ANNAPOLIS, JUNE 7 -- The governor of Maryland cannot block the parole of Patuxent Institution inmates sentenced to life in prison before passage of a state law granting him that authority, the state's highest court ruled today.

The Court of Appeals ruled 6 to 1 that imposing the gubernatorial review requirement on inmates incarcerated at Patuxent before the law went into effect in 1982 violated a constitutional ban against punishment based on stricter laws that passed after the commission of a crime.

The court's decision came in the case of a Baltimore County man convicted of murdering his estranged wife's parents in 1974. The inmate, Richard Lee Sutton, entered Patuxent in 1975, when paroles from the controversial, rehabilitation-oriented prison were solely at the discretion of an independent review board.

Patuxent's Board of Review recommended Sutton for parole in 1984, two years after the new law took effect, but his petition was denied by then-Gov. Harry Hughes. Sutton then challenged Hughes's decision in Circuit Court, where a judge ruled that only the board's approval was needed for Sutton's parole. The high court upheld that ruling today.

As a result, Sutton may reappear before the board for a new parole hearing with only the facts of his case as it stood six years ago in evidence, the court said. The governor's approval will not be needed for his release.

Today, the attorney for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Emory A. Plitt Jr., said that about nine other prisoners serving life sentences may be affected by today's ruling. "We have to determine who the lifers are who were approved for parole but did not get the approval of the governor," he said.

In late 1989, Patuxent became the center of a controversy over its work-release, furlough and parole policies, which many legislators considered too liberal, after it became known that a Montgomery County triple murderer was being allowed to make unescorted visits home.

The Maryland General Assembly subsequently approved laws reconstituting Patuxent's review board to include victims' rights advocates and restricting the circumstances under which prisoners could be admitted to and released from the prison.

Sutton's attorneys with the Prisoner Assistance Project of the Legal Aid Bureau said they will carefully review the court's 44-page opinion to determine whether it will help them challenge some aspects of the 1989 laws.