The Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit filed by Assembly Republicans who are seeking to block an executive order from Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe that restored voting rights to more than 206,000 Virginians who had previously been convicted of felonies. State Republicans say Mr. McAuliffe exceeded his authority with the order and the state’s constitution only allows governors to restore rights, including voting rights, on a case-by-case basis. The executive order granted voting rights to those who had served their time and completed any parole or probation requirements by the date of his order. The executive order revised the state’s previous policy, which required all citizens with felony convictions to apply for voting rights restoration before being permitted to vote. With the order, Virginia joins 39 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing citizens with past criminal convictions to vote, and more than 11,000 felons in Virginia have since registered.
The state’s high court did not make a ruling after hearing initial arguments on the case Tuesday. Lawyers for the Republicans challenging the order are pushing for a decision before the 2016 election.
McAuliffe argues he does have the power under the Virginia Constitution to restore voting rights to felons who have fulfilled their debt to society, and University of Virginia Law School professor A. E. Dick Howard, whom McAuliffe calls “Virginia’s foremost constitutional scholar” in the state – and helped write the current version of Virginia’s Constitution – came to a similar conclusion.
“Looking at what the Constitution does say and doesn’t say, historically the power of conferring pardons, remitting fines, commuting sentences, that cluster of powers is a power give by the Constitution, both at the federal and state level … and the only limits to that power are spelled out by the Constitution itself,” Mr. Howard tells The Christian Science Monitor. Since the Constitution doesn’t spell out a restriction to that power, Howard says McAuliffe acted within the Constitution with his order.