GOP ups ante to block felons’ rights restoration

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 9/9/2016, 6 p.m.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe is facing a new challenge from the Republican-dominated Virginia General Assembly to his authority to restore the …
Sen. Norment

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is facing a new challenge from the Republican-dominated Virginia General Assembly to his authority to restore the rights of felons who have served their time — even on a case-by-case basis.

Blocked by the Virginia Supreme Court from issuing blanket orders to restore felons’ rights and hit with a Republican request that the high court hold him in contempt for allegedly trying to get around the ruling, Gov. McAuliffe now is trying to halt a move by GOP lawmakers to strip him and future governors from any role in the rights restoration process.

Restoration of rights includes the right to vote, run for office, serve on a jury and act as a notary public.

While Gov. McAuliffe and his allies are vowing to fight, they face an uphill battle given the Republican majorities in the state Senate and House of Delegates.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment, R-James City County, has opened the new front.

Offended that the Democratic governor has sought to restore the voting rights of every felon who completes his or her sentence — regardless of the crime — Sen. Norment has introduced a constitutional amendment to overhaul the 186-year-old process of rights restoration and eliminate the governor’s role.

Since at least 1830, Virginia’s governor has been the only person who could restore rights of felons, who otherwise are stripped of those rights for life.

Under the Norment amendment, the governor would lose the authority to “remove political disabilities” as the state constitution now describes the process.

Instead, people convicted of nonviolent felonies, as defined by the General Assembly, would “have their political rights automatically restored” once they had served their time, including any probation, parole or suspension of time, and “paid in full any fines, court costs and restitution,” the Norment amendment states.

However, people convicted of murder, rape, robbery or other crimes the legislature defines as violent never would be able to regain their rights in Virginia, according to the amendment.

If passed in the 2017 and 2018 sessions of the General Assembly, the amendment would go to Virginia voters for approval before becoming law.

Gov. McAuliffe, whose term will end in early 2018, has described Sen. Norment’s proposal as an “affront to the ideals” the state was founded on. He stated that he and his administration would “strongly oppose any new civil rights barriers that would move Virginia backward.”

However, by law, the governor is barred from using his greatest power to halt the amendment — his veto pen.

And Sen. Norment views the prospects for passage as bright given that it only takes a majority of members elected in each chamber of the legislature to approve the measure.

Republicans hold a 21-17 majority in the 40-member Senate, with two current vacancies. In the Senate, only 21 votes are enough to pass a constitutional amendment.

In addition, Republicans hold 66 of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates, or far more than the 51 votes needed to pass a constitutional amendment.

Still, it is unclear that every Republican in the legislature would support such a major change. House Republicans have regularly killed proposed constitutional amendments to make it easier for even nonviolent felons to have their rights restored.

Sen. Norment, who previously supported a proposed constitutional amendment to restore the rights of nonviolent felons, believes that the “right way” to deal with the issue is to get an amendment “approved by the General Assembly” and sent to the people of Virginia for a vote.

“I believe,” he stated in announcing his proposed amendment, that “those convicted of nonviolent felonies deserve a second chance. This amendment would guarantee those who have their right to vote restored are truly deserving of that second chance.”

The top Republican in the House, Speaker William J. Howell of Fredericksburg, believes “Sen. Norment is right: The time has come for Virginia’s policy on restoration of rights to change, and that can only happen with a constitutional amendment approved by the elected members of the General Assembly and Virginia voters.

“Sen. Norment’s proposal will certainly be part of that discussion. I am also asking several members of the House to begin developing proposals that can be discussed when the General Assembly convenes in January. We very much hope the governor is willing to work with the General Assembly in a productive way.”

That seems unlikely. Nor do the governor’s allies seem amenable to finding a compromise amendment.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus “will oppose any effort to further restrict efforts to restore the rights of citizens to vote in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which includes recently proposed constitutional amendments,” according to caucus chairwoman Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Newport News.

“In a democracy, we should want more citizens participating, not less,” she said. “Instead, we have legislators who seek more ways to demonize, condemn and restrict the voting process for citizens who have paid their debts to society. There is no moral authority or redemptive value in that kind of legislation, and we are not that kind of Commonwealth.”