RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe has agreed, under a civil settlement with a state prosecutor, to turn over a list of 206,000 convicted felons whose voting rights he restored last year under a now-defunct executive order.
Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman (R) had been seeking the list since McAuliffe (D) restored voting and other civil rights to felons in a sweeping executive order in April 2016.
Plowman filed a Freedom of Information Act request soon afterward, but the administration denied it, saying the names fell under an exemption covering the governor’s “working papers.”
Plowman then sued the McAuliffe administration, which resulted in the settlement, dated Monday, that requires the governor to turn over the list and pay $1,200 to Plowman’s attorney, Matthew D. Hardin.
“They’re giving me everything I asked for a year ago. They just dragged it out,” Plowman said in an interview Thursday. “It seems a bit unreasonable that you have to actually file a lawsuit to get something that people should have everyday public access to.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy suggested that the list is meaningless because the state Supreme Court invalidated the original order and the governor has since come up with a different method for restoring rights.
“We are pleased to put Mr. Plowman’s needless, wasteful and currently moot lawsuit to rest,” Coy said in an email.
“Nothing about the old database relates to the governor’s current individualized process, which the Virginia Supreme Court has upheld, and which has successfully restored over 156,000 ex-felons’ rights. The governor remains committed to restoration of civil rights and hopes that Republicans will finally accept that giving people who have served their time a voice in their society is the right thing to do.”
Virginia is one of a handful of states that permanently disenfranchises felons. The Virginia Constitution, however, gives the governor authority to restore the right to vote, serve on a jury and run for public office. McAuliffe’s predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), simplified and sped up that process, but McAuliffe took it to a new level. With great fanfare on the steps of the state Capitol last year, McAuliffe announced that he had restored rights to 206,000. He heralded his action as a way for Virginia to move past the Jim Crow era, noting that African Americans have been disproportionately affected by felon disenfranchisement.
Republicans were furious because the order included violent felons and those who had not paid court costs or made restitution to their victims.
They filed two lawsuits against what they called an unconstitutional and sloppy order. One, filed by GOP legislators, contended that the governor exceeded his clemency powers because he restored rights en masse instead of individually. The other, from Plowman, sought the list of felons, which was of interest after a number of errors surfaced.
McAuliffe had intended his order to cover only felons who had served their time and completed parole, but he mistakenly restored rights to 132 sex offenders still in custody as well as to several convicted killers on probation in other states. This troubled Plowman and some fellow prosecutors, because the governor’s order not only restored voting rights but also the right to serve on juries. It also was a steppingstone toward the restoration of gun rights.
In July, the legislators’ suit prevailed with the Supreme Court of Virginia, which threw out McAuliffe’s blanket clemency order. Since then, the governor has used a fast-track but individualized approach to restore rights to 156,000 felons — a process that passed muster with the Supreme Court. Governors typically report the names of felons whose rights they restore to the General Assembly, but unlike other forms of clemency, reporting is not required. McAuliffe reported the names of felons whose restorations were not undone by the Supreme Court, but not the original list.
But Plowman, with his suit, still sought the names of the 206,000 covered by the original order. He said it will reveal the full scope of errors related to the governor’s sweeping clemency attempt — and make the case for vetting felons before restoring their rights.
“I think the public has a right to know . . . what’s fallen through the cracks here,” he said. “We didn’t create all these people that were violent and in mental hospitals and non-citizens. They were there and he chose to take action and intended to take action on all of them, and would have if we hadn’t called him out on it.”