What (if anything) does the Virginia voting rights decision tell us about the president’s pardon power?
On July 22, 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court struck down a series of executive orders issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe restoring voting and other civil rights to more than 200,000 convicted individuals. See Howell v. McAuliffe (Va. 2016). The court, in a 4-to-3 decision, disputed the governor’s assertion that his restoration power was absolute under the state’s Constitution. “We respectfully disagree,” the majority justices wrote. “The clemency power may be broad, but it is not absolute.” Governor McAuliffe responded to the court’s action by promising to restore the vote on an individual basis to everyone affected by his orders, starting with the 13,000 who had already registered to vote. More details of the reaction to the court’s ruling are reported here.
The Virginia court’s decision is interesting for what it may tell us about the possibility of class-wide grants of clemency, whether full pardon or sentence commutation, under the president’s pardon power. In finding limits on the governor’s restoration power under the Virginia constitution, the court relied upon two other constitutional provisions that have no analogue in the U.S. Constitution.