Just after a divided Virginia Supreme Court declared Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring the rights of more than 200,000 Virginia felons unconstitutional, McAuliffe vowed to restore those voting rights one individual at a time. Chief Justice Donald Lemons wrote the majority opinion for the Court. Relying on his clemency power under Article V, Section 12 of the Constitution of Virginia, Governor McAuliffe’s Executive Order sought “to restore the political rights of any persons disqualified by Article II, Section 1.” J.A. at 1. The voter-disqualification provision in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of Virginia provides: “No person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority.” Felons may request that their civil rights be restored, and Article II, Section 1 grants the Governor the power to consider and act on those requests.
Scores of restoration orders have been issued for more than a century to specific felons who requested that their civil rights be restored. Never before, however, have any of the prior 71 Virginia Governors issued a sua sponte clemency order of any kind, whether to restore civil rights or grant a pardon, to an entire class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request. What is more, we are aware of no point in the history of the Commonwealth that any Governor has even asserted the power to issue such an order.
This issue is not a new one. As recently as 2010, Governor Tim Kaine openly expressed his disagreement “with the current policy embodied in the Constitution of Virginia that a felony conviction automatically leads to permanent disenfranchisement.”. Shortly before the end of his term in office, Governor Kaine was asked to exercise his “executive power . . . to restore voting rights to an unknown number of unnamed individuals who have not applied to have their voting rights restored.”. In response, Governor Kaine undertook “a very careful review of [this] proposal.”