The Supreme Court of Virginia on Friday struck down Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to 206,000 felons, dealing a severe blow to what the governor has touted as one of his proudest achievements in office. In a 4-3 ruling, the court declared McAuliffe’s order unconstitutional, saying it amounts to a unilateral rewrite and suspension of the state’s policy of lifetime disenfranchisement for felons. The court ordered the Virginia Department of Elections to “cancel the registration of all felons who have been invalidly registered” under McAuliffe’s April 22 executive order and subsequent orders. As of this week, 11,662 felons had registered to vote under McAuliffe’s orders. The court gave a cancellation deadline of Aug. 25. McAuliffe, a Democrat, took the sweeping action in April, saying he was doing away with an unusually restrictive voting policy that has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans. In a legal challenge, Republican leaders argued McAuliffe overstepped his power by issuing a blanket restoration order for violent and nonviolent felons with no case-by-case review. The court majority found that McAuliffe did indeed overstep his authority.
“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,” Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons wrote in the majority opinion. “To be sure, no governor of this commonwealth, until now, has even suggested that such a power exists. And the only governors who have seriously considered the question concluded that no such power exists.”
In response, McAuliffe said he will “expeditiously” sign roughly 13,000 individual rights restoration orders for people who have already registered to vote. He said he’ll continue until rights are restored for all 200,000 people affected by the original order. “Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has placed Virginia as an outlier in the struggle for civil and human rights,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “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.”