Virginia House Speaker William Howell
Virginia House Speaker William Howell | youtube, the commons

Virginia Supreme Court grants July hearing of challenge to McAuliffe order on felons' rights

Virginia's Supreme Court on Wednesday granted Republican legislators' request for an expedited hearing of their lawsuit challenging Gov. Terry McAuliffe's executive order restoring voting and other civil rights to convicted felons.

The case will be heard in a special session on July 19 at 9 a.m. In it, the lawmakers argue that McAuliffe's order violates the state constitution.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), one of the named plaintiffs in the suit, posted the order to his Twitter feed Wednesday afternoon.

Howell spokesman Matthew Moran called the order a "very positive sign," coming as it does after Attorney General Mark Herring filed a brief with the court on May 27 urging a delay.

Plaintiffs had requested the court grant a hearing as early as June 6.

Herring spokesman Michael Kelly told AMI Newswire that "Attorney General Herring did not oppose the scheduling of a special session, just the unusual and unreasonable timeline the Republicans had proposed and the Court rejected."

Kelly added that the Attorney General "is prepared to defend Governor McAuliffe's order."

In a statement accompanying Herring's May 27 brief, McAuliffe said: "The plaintiffs have failed to make a valid case for why this suit should move forward at all, much less why the Court should disrupt its calendar to expedite a meritless lawsuit."

Herring's brief contends the clear wording of Virginia's constitution does not prevent a governor from issuing a blanket restoration of rights to large numbers of fellons.

His brief also argues that the plaintiffs, including Howell and Senate Republican leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City), lack standing to sue, as they have shown no unique injury that can be remedied through the courts.

McAuliffe's April 22 executive order could restore the right to vote, to serve on juries, to run for public office, and to serve as a notary public to as many as 206,000 violent and non-violent felons.

According to McAuliffe's office, more than 5,000 felons covered by his executive order have already registered to vote in this November's elections.

Charles Cooper, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the case, called McAuliffe's order "tantamount to a repeal or an amendment" of the state constitution, a function Cooper says is reserved to the General Assembly.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, and Virginia branches of the NAACP, ACLU, and AFL-CIO staged rallies across the state on Wednesday in support of McAuliffe's order and to oppose what the group calls "voter suppression." The groups will also be conducting voter registration drives at the events.