Virginia High Court Considers if Gov. McAuliffe Was Wrong to Restore Felons’ Voting Rights

Gov. Terry McAuliffe holds up the order he signed to restore rights to more than 200,000 felons in Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, April 22, 2016. The Virginia Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the order on Tuesday. (Mark Gormus /Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Gov. Terry McAuliffe holds up the order he signed to restore rights to more than 200,000 felons in Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, April 22, 2016. The Virginia Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of the order on Tuesday. (Mark Gormus /Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

The fight over Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s move to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons is going before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of the governor’s order. It agreed to expedite review of the challenge brought by state Republicans, who want a ruling before the November general election.

The Democratic governor described his order as an important civil rights advancement. About a quarter of the state’s black population has been barred from voting because of convictions.

But Republican legislative leaders allege McAuliffe has a purely partisan motivation to deliver more votes to Democrats, including to help Hillary Clinton win the crucial swing state in November.

The legal issue before the Virginia Supreme Court is more narrow: Does the governor have authority under the state constitution to restore voting rights to thousands, or must he do it on a case-by-case basis?

Sen. Tim Kaine, the state’s last Democratic governor and possible Clinton running mate, determined in 2010 that he could not issue a blanket voting rights restoration order.

McAuliffe’s Republican predecessor, Robert McDonnell, in 2013 began to ease requirements for ex-offenders to regain voting rights, and McAuliffe ramped up that effort with his order.

Republican challengers say McAuliffe’s sweeping order for offenders who have finished serving their sentences was a clear overreach of the governor’s clemency powers.

“Governor McAuliffe’s executive order defies the plain text of the Constitution, flouts the separation of powers, and has no precedent in the annals of Virginia history,” attorneys for House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and four voters argue in their lawsuit.

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