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Virginia Governor announces new plan to restore rights to felons

Revamping an earlier plan struck down by his state's Supreme Court, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced he had newly restored certain civil rights, including the right to vote, to 13,000 felons.

Claiming now to be in full compliance with the court ruling, the governor outlined a process to handle even more rights-restoration cases in the future.

The high court on July 22 had invalidated an earlier, unprecedentedly sweeping executive order by McAuliffe that purported to restore rights to more than 206,000 violent and non-violent felons who had completed their sentences.

The court held that Virginia’s constitution allows a governor to restore felons’ rights only on a case-by-case basis, and that the governor must report the specifics of each restoration to the General Assembly.

The court order also removed the roughly 13,000 felons who had registered to vote under McAuliffe’s executive order from the state’s voter rolls.

In a memorandum released to the state’s commonwealth attorneys, General Assembly members and local elected officials, McAuliffe said his office had conducted "a thorough review of the individuals who had their voter registration canceled” to determine whether they qualified to have those rights restored again under the new system.

The 13,000 who did were notified by mail on August 19th. Others are still under review.

In the future, McAuliffe’s memorandum said, those who had requested their rights be restored would be given priority consideration, with those who have been released from state supervision the longest taking precedence over others.

To be eligible for rights restoration, felons must first be released from prison, and may no longer be under “active supervision by the Department of Corrections or other state agency.”

The secretary of the commonwealth will “conduct a thorough review of each of these individuals,” the memorandum said, with background checks being performed against a number of state databases to search for active arrest warrants, pretrial holds and other items of concern to law enforcement.

Once the background checks are complete, the secretary of the commonwealth's office will make a list of individuals recommended for rights restoration. The governor will review “each individual’s record” before deciding whether to make the restoration.

McAuliffe will release the names of those granted their rights back each month, with the list being made “available by request” to the general public and included in a report listing pardons, commutations, reprieves and other forms of clemency to the Virginia Senate, “as it has been historically,” the memorandum said.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City), said in a statement that he was "pleased Governor McAuliffe has complied with the decision of the Supreme Court of Virginia, one month to the day after it was issued.

"I sincerely hope the Administration has taken greater care in issuing these case-by-case restoration orders than it demonstrated over the last four months,” Norment said, referring to revelations that as many as 132 sex offenders, some of whom were still in prison, were included among those whose rights were restored under McAuliffe’s April 22 executive order.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), said in a statement that the General Assembly will “carefully review Gov. McAuliffe’s process to determine if he followed the legal requirements.

“Undoubtedly, the governor has restored the rights of some deserving citizens,” Howell said. “But there is also no doubt that he has restored the rights of some odious criminals."

In his announcement speech, McAuliffe said he hoped his new plan would bring the "end of the partisan battles that have been waged over this issue."