By a decision of 4-3, the Virginia Supreme Court has struck down a landmark executive order issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe earlier this year that restored the voting rights of over 200,000 former felons.
In April, Governor McAuliffe restored the voting and civil rights of more than 200,000 Virginians who were convicted of felonies, served their time and completed any supervised release, parole or probation requirements. In a statement on the governor's website, "each of those Virginians will immediately regain the right to register to vote, to run for office, to serve on a jury and to serve as a notary public."
In a 60-plus page decision, the Virginia Supreme court "respectfully disagreed" with the governor's assertion that his clemency power in the matter was "absolute."
"The clemency power may be broad, but it is not absolute," the decision notes.
A group of Republican leaders sued Governor McAuliffe and a list of others, after the governor signed the order in April. This gave former felons the ability to vote, serve on a jury and run for office. Felons must have completed their time and not be under any current supervision.
Republicans argued before a packed courtroom that the executive order is unconstitutional and puts too much power into the hands of the governor. Attorneys said that Governor McAuliffe is abusing his executive authority, and that it sets a dangerous precedent.
Democrats say the law has long disenfranchised felons who should be able to cast a ballot without going through an elaborate process, adding that, so far, 11,000 former felons have registered to vote since the governor's order three months ago.
In the Virginia Supreme Court's decision, the court says the question about the case is being asked on the backdrop of history.
"Never before have any of the prior 71 Virginia Governors issued a clemency order of any kind — including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restoration orders — to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request," the decision reads. "To be sure, no Governor of this Commonwealth, until now, has even suggested that such a power exists."
During June's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner with Virginia Democrats, McAuliffe defended his actions against critics, including Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
"40 other states have done what we just did," McAuliffe said. "Why we are always last? Why aren't we leading the nation," adding, "I think democracy is about more people voting."
Just before 8 p.m. Friday, Governor McAuliffe released the following statement after the court's decision.
“Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has placed Virginia as an outlier in the struggle for civil and human rights. It is a disgrace that the Republican leadership of Virginia would file a lawsuit to deny more than 200,000 of their own citizens the right to vote. And I cannot accept that this overtly political action could succeed in suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women who had rejoiced with their families earlier this year when their rights were restored.
“Forty states give citizens who have made mistakes and paid their debt to society a straightforward process for restoring voting rights. I remain committed to moving past our Commonwealth’s history of injustice to embrace an honest process for restoring the rights of our citizens, and I believe history and the vast majority of Virginians are on our side.
“Despite the Court’s ruling, we have the support of the state’s four leading constitutional experts, including A.E. Dick Howard, who drafted the current Virginia Constitution. They are convinced that our action is within the constitutional authority granted to the Office of the Governor.
“The men and women whose voting rights were restored by my executive action should not be alarmed. I will expeditiously sign nearly 13,000 individual orders to restore the fundamental rights of the citizens who have had their rights restored and registered to vote. And I will continue to sign orders until I have completed restoration for all 200,000 Virginians. My faith remains strong in all of our citizens to choose their leaders, and I am prepared to back up that faith with my executive pen. The struggle for civil rights has always been a long and difficult one, but the fight goes on.”
The governor later posted a photo on Twitter with a simple caption, "The fight continues #VARoR"
Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr., issued this statement after the Virginia Supreme Court's ruling.
“The Supreme Court of Virginia delivered a major victory for the Constitution, the rule of law and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Our nation was founded on the principles of limited government and separation of powers. Those principles have once again withstood assault from the executive branch. This opinion is a sweeping rebuke of the governor’s unprecedented assertion of executive authority. We are grateful to the justices of the Supreme Court for their prompt and thorough attention to this case.”
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