RICHMOND — Virginia’s highest court on Thursday turned down a request from Republicans to find Gov. Terry McAuliffe in contempt of court over his efforts to restore voting rights to felons.
The ruling clears the way for McAuliffe (D) to continue a fast-paced effort to grant clemency to 200,000 violent and nonviolent felons. It also gives McAuliffe at least a temporary win in one of the most bitter battles of his administration, in which he has repeatedly called Republicans racists while the GOP has accused him of administrative bumbling and violating the law.
“I am pleased that the Supreme Court has dismissed the case Republicans filed in their latest attempt to prevent individuals who have served their time having a full voice in our society,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “It is my hope that the court’s validation of the process we are using will convince Republicans to drop their divisive efforts to prevent Virginians from regaining their voting rights and focus their energy and resources on making Virginia a better place to live for the people who elected all of us to lead.”
In a written statement, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said the contempt motion was “completely baseless.”
“And I’m glad the Supreme Court dispatched it so quickly,” Herring said. “Governor McAuliffe is doing the right thing in giving these Virginians back their voice and their vote and I hope the legislature will join the effort.”
Republican leaders indicated that they were done fighting McAuliffe in court but that they would take up legislation early next year that could rein in the governor’s clemency push.
“We are disappointed by today’s news but respect the Supreme Court’s order,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said in a written statement. “Throughout this process, our goal was to hold Governor McAuliffe accountable to the Constitution and the Rule of Law. The governor stretched the bounds of the Virginia Constitution and sought to expand executive power in a manner we viewed as inappropriate and reckless.”
“The General Assembly must now review the Constitution’s provision governing felon voting,” Howell added. “The current provisions of the constitution are vague, vulnerable to executive overreach, and insufficiently transparent. Several proposals have already emerged and we expect others to come forward.”
Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) has proposed legislation that would automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences and paid any restitution, court costs and fees. McAuliffe and other Democrats have compared the payment requirement with a modern-day poll tax, although as recently as 2013, Senate Democrats sponsored and unanimously supported a bill that also required that those debts be paid.
Virginia is one of a handful of states that permanently disenfranchise felons. The state constitution, however, gives the governor authority to restore the right to vote, serve on a jury and run for public office. But previous governors had taken a more measured approach to clemency than McAuliffe.
With a gospel choir and large crowd assembled on the Capitol steps in April, McAuliffe issued an executive order that restored voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences. Because felony disenfranchisement hits African Americans disproportionally harder — 1 in 5 African Americans in Virginia cannot vote, according to the Washington-based Sentencing Project — McAuliffe said his sweeping order blotted out the last vestige of Jim Crow-era segregation.
Republicans were incensed that the order included violent offenders and those who had not yet paid restitution to crime victims.
The GOP said McAuliffe’s move was really a bid to add Democratic voters to the rolls ahead of November’s presidential election, when the governor’s close friend and political ally Hillary Clinton will be on the ballot.
Adding to the controversy was the administration’s botched implementation of the order; the governor’s office mistakenly restored rights to 132 sex offenders still in custody, as well as to several convicted killers on probation in other states.
Contending that the governor had overstepped his authority by restoring rights en masse rather than individually, GOP legislative leaders filed a lawsuit — and won. In July, the Supreme Court of Virginia threw out his blanket clemency order. Because 13,000 of the 200,000 felons already had registered to vote, the court ordered the state to again put their names on its list of banned voters.
In August, McAuliffe announced that he had restored voting rights to the 13,000 felons, and was in the process of doing so for all 200,000.
The difference between McAuliffe’s original action and his later approach is largely procedural. Instead of simply announcing that any felon whose sentence is complete is eligible to vote, the administration is mailing each person a notice to that effect.
In their contempt motion, Republicans unsuccessfully argued that McAuliffe’s new approach had the same effect as his original order.