Federal judge skeptical of Virginia "Never Trump" case; ruling expected days before convention
RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A federal judge seemed poised to strike down a controversial Virginia law next week, one that forces state GOP delegates to vote for Donald Trump on the first ballot of the Republican National Convention.
But in a potential setback for the "Never Trump" movement, Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Payne implied his ruling would not serve as a mandate for delegates across the country to revolt against Trump.
The Richmond-based judge rejected a series of arguments from attorneys representing GOP delegate Beau Correll, who asserted delegates have a constitutional right to vote guided by their consciences, rather than by the results of state primaries.
At issue is a Virginia law compelling all state delegates to vote for the winner of the state's presidential primary. Under the current law, Virginia delegates must vote for Trump on the 2016 Republican convention's first ballot.
Failure to do so risks a sentence of up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
"I think that the state has no business compelling me, a member of a private organization, how to vote in that organization's affairs," Correll said during a news conference Thursday.
"If the judge rules in our favor, that is a message that will be sent not just within the confines of the Eastern District of Virginia, but a permission slip that may have political ramifications."
Correll's attorneys argued the delegate's First Amendment rights could be violated if RNC members cannot vote for their candidate of choice. Payne dismissed the argument as weak, minutes into the seven-hour court battle.
"The judge saw the conscience argument as really more of a political argument than a legal one," said Charles E. "Chuck" James, Jr., a former Virginia chief deputy attorney general now with the law firm Williams Mullen. "We saw the judge try to guide Correll's attorneys towards the stronger argument here."
Instead, the judge said Correll could be free to vote against Trump, if delegates are awarded proportionally.
"If an order from this court strikes down the (Virginia) law, the plaintiffs might not have an issue," Payne said, referring to Correll and other GOP delegates who oppose Trump.
Payne called Virginia's current law impossible to enforce, and said it already conflicts with Republican convention rules.
A GOP regulation says delegates must be proportionally awarded to a candidate, rather than winner take all, if a primary is held before March 15.
Trump won Virginia's March 1 primary, with 34.7 percent of the vote.
If Payne invalidates Virginia's "winner take all" law, 17 delegates would be bound to Trump, instead of all 49.
Correll would then have the opportunity to vote against Trump. The Winchester delegate did not disclose who he would support if the law is thrown out.
Earlier this month, Trump dismissed the prospect of a "Never Trump" legal challenge, or a convention coup removing him as the presumptive nominee.
"Number one, they can't do it legally," Trump said in an interview with NBC News. "Number two, I worked for over one year, and we won all of those delegates."
Payne is expected to rule July 11 at the earliest. The 2016 Republican National Convention will be held in Cleveland July 18 – 21.
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