On Friday, the Supreme Court of Virginia overturned Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring the political rights of 206,000 convicted felons. The Supreme Court found the governor’s executive order to be unconstitutional and ordered local registrars and the Department of Elections to cancel the 11,000 in valid voter registrations and re-add the 206,000 convicted felons to the list of prohibited voters.
The Supreme Court’s decision rested on the facts that (a) no governor in the history of the Commonwealth has ever claimed to have such power, (b) the text of the Constitution strongly suggests that the power to restore political rights is an individual power, (c) the governor’s order effectively suspends the constitution, and (d) the governor’s order inverts the “rule” and the “exception” in the Constitution.
The decision was 4-3. Chief Justice Don Lemons wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by Justices McClanahan, Kelsey and McCullough. Justices Mims, Powell and Goodwyn dissented.
“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. To be sure, no Governor of this Commonwealth, until now, has even suggested that such a power exists.” (p. 2)
“We thus reject the Governor’s contention that a faithful reading of the text of Article V, Section 12 endorses his assertion of absolute power to issue clemency orders that his 71 predecessors thought to be of dubious provenance.” (pp. 21-22)
“In this case, Governor McAuliffe has openly declared his disagreement with the voter disqualification provision in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of Virginia. Although the Governor is entitled to champion his views, he cannot do so in contravention of law.” (p. 26)
“The express power to make exceptions to a general rule of law does not confer an implied power to change the general rule itself. The unprecedented scope, magnitude, and categorical nature of Governor McAuliffe’s Executive Order crosses that forbidden line.” (p. 28).
The full opinion can be found here: http://www.courts.state.va.us/opinions/opnscvwp/1160784.pdf.
The Supreme Court delivered a major victory for the Constitution, the rule of law and the Commonwealth of Virginia. The decision was a sweeping rebuke of the governor’s unprecedented assertion of executive authority.
We are grateful to the justices of the Supreme Court for their prompt and thorough attention to this case. We’re also very appreciative to the four Virginia voters who were part of this lawsuit. And finally, we appreciate the hard work of our attorneys, Chuck Cooper, Michael Kirk and their associates.
Governor McAuliffe says he will now sign 206,000 individual orders. That is his prerogative, but it deeply disrespectful to the Supreme Court and a clear effort to circumvent the limits place upon him by the Constitution.
I encourage the governor to use discretion and judgement when restoring rights to convicted criminals. I am all in favor of felons having their rights restored after their debt to society has been paid. But, I also believe that the governor should be held accountable for every single order he signs as the cases are reviewed, one by one.
If you have any concerns, questions, comments or issues that I or my Aide, Jenna, can help you with, please contact us at (434) 821-5929 or email at Delmfariss@house.virginia.gov. You can also keep up with me on my facebook page at www.facebook.com/DelegateMattFariss.