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Federal judge permits rights restoration lawsuit against Gov. Glenn Youngkin

Connor Scribner
VPM News
George Hawkins Jr. speaks with reporters on Friday outside the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Richmond.

People convicted of a felony in Virginia lose their rights to vote, serve on a jury and run for office.

A federal judge allowed a lawsuit against Gov. Glenn Youngkin to proceed in a move that may provide more public insight into the Republican’s process for restoring voting rights.

District Judge John A. Gibney Jr. heard arguments Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on whether to throw out the case.

Later that day, Gibney issued an order allowing the case to proceed because “it is apparent that there are factual issues that must be developed.” He told attorneys to prepare for discovery — a process where both parties may depose people, request documents and answers to specific questions.

The judge ordered that process completed by Jan. 14, 2024 ahead of a hearing on March 20.

Virginia is the only state where people convicted of any felony lose their right to vote, serve on a jury and run for office — unless the governor restores it. The past three governors laid out clear criteria for restoring rights. Youngkin has not, a move attorneys for George Hawkins Jr. argue violates his First Amendment rights.

“The ultimate goal is to create a process that's not arbitrary — a process that's bound by rules and criteria, and is not just left to the complete discretion of a single politician,” said Jon Sherman, the litigation director with Fair Elections Center who is leading the team representing Hawkins.

Hawkins is a Richmond resident who was released from prison in May after serving a 13-year sentence for attempted murder and aggravated malicious wounding. He told reporters he has no insight into why the administration blocked his rights restoration application for a second time — news he said he’d learned days before Friday’s hearing.

“I just think it's very unfair that the governor has this process where I have to trust his character and his morality behind closed doors,” Hawkins said after the hearing.

Deputy Attorney General Steven Popps, who is representing Youngkin and Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Gee, urged Gibney to dismiss the case. He said Hawkins’ attorneys hadn’t persuasively argued that the First Amendment covers voting as protected speech. Popps also argued Youngkin has broad discretion with how he handles each rights restoration applicant.

“It’s a solemn power that he has,” Popps said. “Every governor is different.”

Popps did succeed in persuading Gibney to drop Nolef Turns, a nonprofit organization that works with currently and previously incarcerated people, as a plaintiff in the suit. The move leaves Hawkins as the only remaining plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The Virginia Department of Elections reported that it added 2,667 people who’d had their rights restored to voter rolls between Sept. 1, 2022, and Aug. 16, 2023. That’s roughly one-third of the level from the same period the year before, which included the end of Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam’s term.

Following VPM News reporting, the department acknowledged this week it had mistakenly removed an unknown number of people who’d previously had their rights restored from voter rolls; it said it is working with Virginia State Police to restore those voters.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (D–3rd) has called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the issue, according to Axios.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.