RICHMOND — A federal judge on Monday blocked Virginia from enforcing a law that would have required all of the state’s GOP delegates to vote for Donald Trump, the winner of its presidential primary, at the national nominating convention next week.
The victory gives a token boost to Free the Delegates, a national organization seeking to allow delegates to vote their conscience, even if that means bucking the results of caucuses and primaries.
However, the ruling may not have a practical impact because the nomination process is governed by rules that will be adopted by the Republican National Committee at the convention in Cleveland.
The decision came on the same day that Republican activists began a week of meetings to set the rules they party will use to officially nominate Trump.
The lawsuit was filed by Carroll “Beau” Correll Jr., a lawyer from Northern Virginia and a member of Free the Delegates who backed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the Virginia presidential primary. Among other things, Correll argued that the state law that required him to vote for Trump would have violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
One of Correll’s lawyers, David B. Rivkin Jr., called the ruling “symbolic and very important.”
“It is an excellent opinion that makes perfectly clear that states like Virginia cannot constitutionally regulate the way in which political parties arrange their affairs, including how delegates to the national convention vote,” said Rivkin, a partner at Baker Hostetler.
But Lindsay Walters, a spokeswoman for the RNC, also claimed victory.
“Today’s decision in Correll upholds the right of political parties to set their own rules for national convention delegate selection and allocation,” she wrote in an email. “It affirms our First Amendment right to require that delegates be bound to primary results, and it makes clear that delegates are bound under national party rules.”
Lawyers in the office of Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) defended state law, joined by eight Trump supporters and delegates from Virginia who petitioned to be part of the case.
The group includes John Fredericks, a conservative radio show host from Chesapeake, Va., and Eugene A. Delgaudio, a former Loudoun County supervisor and conservative firebrand who survived a 2014 recall effort.
Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Herring, said RNC rules “will still dictate the delegate allocation.”
“It’s still up to the Republican Party to figure out how to resolve this internal dispute with dissatisfied delegates,” Kelly said, “and the commonwealth will not be able to pursue criminal charges against delegates no matter how they vote, which it had no intention of doing anyway.”
The state has not yet decided if it will appeal, he said.
Judge Robert E. Payne of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia issued the ruling after a hearing July 7, during which experts discussed Republican National Committee rules.
Although the rules could change, Virginia allocates delegates proportionally based on the primary results. That means Trump, who won 35 percent of the primary vote, would receive 17 of the state’s 49 delegates. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) would receive 16 delegates, followed by Cruz with eight, Ohio Gov. John Kasich with five and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson with three.
“And Mr. Correll has no problem with that,” Rivkin said. “[The ruling] takes state compulsion off the table.”
With the convention starting next week, there is no time for similar lawsuits in other states, Rivkin said.
But Correll has said that he thinks a ruling in his favor would affect similar laws in at least 20 other states.
Free the Delegates wants to wipe out the ballots of millions of caucus and primary voters and leave the nomination up to thousands of delegates to the convention.
The proposal would need to win the votes of at least half of the 112-member convention rules committee, but just 28 votes to be introduced to the full convention as a “minority report” that would open up the issue to all 4,272 convention delegates. Organizers say they think they have at least 28 votes.
O’Keefe reported from Cleveland.