Va Supreme Court hears case of a restoration of voting rights to former felons

Va Supreme Court hears case of a restoration of voting rights to former felons

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Virginia Supreme Court justices are weighing a heavy decision that could impact Virginia's vote in November's election.

The court wrapped up hearing the case Tuesday morning over Governor Terry McAuliffe's executive order to restore the voting rights of 206,000 former felons.

A group of Republican leaders is suing 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.

Charles Cooper, an attorney for Republicans, mainly argued that Virginia's constitution implies that the governor must restore voting rights on an individual, case-by-case basis - not with a blanket move.

"It's individualized. [The constitution] doesn't say so, but it's clear that the governor must individualize it. And why is that? It's in order that the governor's judgment be brought to bare individually. That eliminates or minimizes errors," said Cooper.

Republicans have also contended that the governor is rewriting the law during an election year, which could impact Virginia's vote, come November. They say allowing 206,000 felons to vote would "dilute" the voice of other voters, similar to the gerrymandering of a district. They say the governor is purposely attempting to sway the vote to bolster Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Attorneys also asserted that the governor's issuing of new orders every month to keep his restoration of rights order instituted, nullifies the spirit of the state constitution, which they argue generally prohibits felons from voting. Attorneys also said that this type of executive order has never been used before to give such a mass pardon.

The state's solicitor general, Stuart Raphael, representing the governor, argued that there's no specific language in the constitution that requires the governor to restore rights in any particular way.

"There's no hook in that language where you can hang their arguments and say, 'Oh here's where it imposes an individualized case requirement.' It's just not there," said Raphael.

Raphael argued that language elsewhere in the constitution gives the governor the power to "remove political disabilities." Raphael also said that it is irrelevant if this type of action has never been taken before by former governors.

Democrats say the law has long disenfranchised felons who should be able to cast a ballot without going through an elaborate process. So far, 11,000 former felons have registered to vote since the governor's order three months ago.

The Supreme Court justices questioned both sides, intently. One justice voiced discontent that the governor has not released the list of names of felons whose rights have been restored. Other justices pressed Republican attorneys in what the difference would be if the governor restored rights individually, or all at once, if the end result is the same.

"If [the governor] does 206,000 of them individually... [or] He does 206,000 of them collectively, where is the suspension [of law]... when the end result is the same?" asked Honorable Cleo Powell.

Republicans hope the justices will hand down a decision by the end of August. They say that would allow enough time to strike newly registered felons under the governor's order, from the eligible voter list, if the ruling is in their favor.

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