RICHMOND, Va., -- Hundreds rallied at the state Capitol Tuesday as the Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments in the lawsuit filed by a group of Virginia Republicans to challenge Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order to restore the political rights of more than 206,000 convicted felons.
Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, Jr. (R-James City), and four other Virginia voters brought on the lawsuit.
Supporters of the executive order held signs and chanted "This is what democracy looks like" and "Stand up, fight back" as they marched along North 9th Street.
41-year-old Walter Jones of Richmond, who was at the rally, was convicted of a felony years ago.
"I got convicted at the age of 18 of drug possession. " Jones said. "I never want to see inside of a jail no more."
Jones has since completed his sentencing and is no longer on supervised probation or parole. He is eligible to vote if judges uphold the Governor's executive order.
Virginia Republicans said the state constitution forbids McAuliffe’s mass restoration of political rights. They argue restoration has to be done “on a case by case, individualized basis.”
Charles Cooper, who represents the GOP lawmakers who brought the suit, argued McAuliffe had overstepped his constitutional authority. Cooper said the language of the Virginia Constitution prevents the Governor from making an "en masse" restoration order.
"With respect to all of those 200,000 plus felons, the general rule has simply been suspended," Cooper said.
No Virginia Governor in history has ever granted "blanket clemency" to felons, Cooper said. He added that former Governor's Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell looked into whether they had the authority to do so, but concluded they did not have the power.
"That a power granted to and held by a chief magistrate, whether it be King, President, or Governor, does not go unused for almost two and a half centuries," said Cooper.
Stuart Raphael with the Virginia Attorney General's office defended the order. He said the language in the Virginia constitution does not limit how the Governor grants voting restoration rights for felons.
"There is no guiding principle you can discern in the text of the Constitution that would impose some kind of requirement on the Governor to ration or limit his clemency power," Raphael said. "I think it's important to focus on what the case is about; try to ignore the political aspects of it, and just focus on the law."
McAuliffe has said his executive order placed Virginia with the overwhelming majority of states that restore rights of people who have served their time.
"We are no longer dangers to society," said 66-year-old Carol Abdul-Malik, who completed his sentence in 1978 and had his rights restored by Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2010. "We are assets. We are tired of our past thrown in front of us."
According to numbers released by the Governor's Office, 11,000 of the more than 200,000 felons who had their voting rights restored under the order have registered to vote.
During the hearing, the justices appeared somewhat split on which side they favored, posing very pointed questions to both sides. There is no exact time frame for when they will release their decision; however, lawyers involved in the case hope it comes by early September since absentee voting for the November election begins shortly after that.