In a case that could have an impact on the November presidential election, the Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday over a Republican lawsuit challenging the blanket restoration of voting rights for 206,000 felons by Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. If upheld, McAuliffe’s order could help tip Virginia, a swing state where the vote is traditionally close in presidential elections, in favor of presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Lawyers for leaders in the Republican-controlled state legislature argued that McAuliffe exceeded his authority by restoring voting rights en masse, rather than on a case-by-case basis. “Never in Virginia’s 240-year history has a governor exercised clemency power en masse,” Charles Cooper, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told the court.
Cooper said history and the language of the state constitution clearly indicate that the restoration of a felon’s rights must be done individually.
But Stuart Raphael, Virginia’s solicitor general, said nothing in the constitution restricts McAuliffe’s authority to restore such rights across the board, even though no governor has done so in the past. “If he has the power,” Raphael said, “he has the power.”
The plaintiffs have asked the court to block McAuliffe’s action, which also allows felons to serve on juries and hold public office. The court did not say on Tuesday when it may issue a decision in the case.