RICHMOND, Va. – The Virginia Supreme Court on Friday struck down Governor McAuliffe’s executive order to restore the voting rights of more than 206,000 convicted felons.
Charles Cooper, who represented the four GOP lawmakers who brought the suit, argued McAuliffe had overstepped his constitutional authority. Cooper said the language of the Virginia Constitution prevents the Governor from making an "en masse" restoration order.
The court was sharply divided, with 4-3 in favor of ruling it unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Donald Lemons issued the opinion, which said that McAuliffe’s order essentially reframed a section of the state constitution.
The court “respectfully” disagreed that McAuliffe had the power to issue a clemency order “to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request.”
In Lemons’ opinion, he hearkened back to Virginia’s tradition of “cautious and incremental approach to any expansions of the executive power.”
He stated that the original framers in 1776 were skeptical of “the unfettered exercise of executive power.”
Since the Executive Orders were found unconstitutional, no election official in the Commonwealth has the discretion to enforce them, Lemons said.
Virginia Republicans have consistently argued that restoration has to be done “on a case by case, individualized basis.”
By August 25, 2016, the court ordered that registration of all voters convicted of a felony who registered under Executive Orders issued on April 22, 2016, May 31, 2016, and June 24, 2016 will be cancelled.
By that same date, all registration records must be corrected as necessary.
Additionally, the name of voters who had their rights restored by the orders will now have their names returned to a list of prohibited voters.
Hundreds rallied at the state Capitol Tuesday as the Supreme Court heard arguments.
Supporters of the executive order held signs and chanted "This is what democracy looks like" and "Stand up, fight back" as they marched along North 9th Street.
McAuliffe has said his executive order placed Virginia with the overwhelming majority of states that restore rights of people who have served their time.
"We are no longer dangers to society," said 66-year-old Carol Abdul-Malik, who completed his sentence in 1978 and had his rights restored by Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2010. "We are assets. We are tired of our past thrown in front of us."
According to numbers released by the Governor's Office, 11,000 of the more than 200,000 felons who had their voting rights restored under the order have registered to vote.
After Friday's decision, McAuliffe released a statement that read:
“Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has placed Virginia as an outlier in the struggle for civil and human rights. 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.
Forty states give citizens who have made mistakes and paid their debt to society a straightforward process for restoring voting rights. I remain committed to moving past our Commonwealth’s history of injustice to embrace an honest process for restoring the rights of our citizens, and I believe history and the vast majority of Virginians are on our side.
Despite the Court’s ruling, we have the support of the state’s four leading constitutional experts, including A.E. Dick Howard, who drafted the current Virginia Constitution. They are convinced that our action is within the constitutional authority granted to the Office of the Governor.
The men and women whose voting rights were restored by my executive action should not be alarmed. I will expeditiously sign nearly 13,000 individual orders to restore the fundamental rights of the citizens who have had their rights restored and registered to vote. And I will continue to sign orders until I have completed restoration for all 200,000 Virginians. My faith remains strong in all of our citizens to choose their leaders, and I am prepared to back up that faith with my executive pen. The struggle for civil rights has always been a long and difficult one, but the fight goes on.”