THE YEAR is young, but we are almost ready right now to give the 1979 Award for Last-Minute Abuse of Power by an Outgoing State Executive to Ray Blanton. The Tennessee ex-governor didn't become "ex" quite soon enough to prevent him from embarking on an eleventh-hour, grand-scale exercise of his authority to grant executive clemency. After he had been abruptly forced from power and his office sealed by police Wednesday night, Mr. Blanton said he was "saddened and hurt that this clandestine action has taken place.... I thought they would have the courtesy to tell me." Courtesy? What did he expect after he had celebrated his last few days in office by summarily pardoning or commuting the sentences of 52 prisoners, 24 of them murderers? A ceremony in his honor, with a brass band and a crowd to cheer him on while he proceeded to empty Tennessee jails of still more potentially dangerous criminals?

According to reports from Nashville, releasing more convicts was precisely what Mr. Blanton was preparing to do Wednesday night when the new governor, Lamar Alexander, had himself sworn in ahead of schedule and sent his agents physically to seize the state capitol and the governor's office. Mr. Blanton's legal counsel was found drafting more executive-clemency papers, apparently including some for convicts involved in a parole-selling scandal. He abandoned the job only after being told that Mr. Blanton would not be allowed to enter the capitol building to review and sign the necessary documents.

What is going on in Tennessee? Three of Mr. Blanton's former aides have been arrested on federal bribery charges. One federal grand jury has been investigating allegations of parole-selling for months. Another has opened an investigation into liquor licensing by the Blanton administration. There are reports that additional probes are under way into highway contracts and other federally funded programs. In that context, it was not surprising -- and hardly clandestine -- that Mr. Alexander moved up his inauguration three days after being asked by the U.S. attorney if he could help put a stop to what Mr. Blanton was doing.

There remains the problem of what to do about Mr. Blanton's extraordinary legacy. The Tennessee courts are already looking into the validity of some of the clemency papers Mr. Blanton signed so hastily. They will no doubt be prepared to examine other aspects of his crash program of executive clemency, if it turns out that there is some evidence of official misconduct. But it is also entirely possible that nothing can be done about most of the pardons or commutations and that those released will simply remain legally free.

What is there to be said about a misuse of power and responsibility that speaks so eloquently for itself? Only, we suppose, that it could have been worse. Tennesseeans, and anyone else who might be affected by Mr. Blanton's reckless performance, can at least count themselves lucky that Tennessee law permits the moving up of the inauguration date. And they can take some considerable comfort in the fact that the state's other top Democratic officials were quick to recognize the need to limit the damage by cooperating in the effort to replace their fellow Democrat with his Republican successor as quickly as possible.