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Parties to reload in firearms for felons cases

Stephen Igo • Nov 2, 2017 at 5:30 PM

WISE — Thursday’s firearms for felons cases turned into a good-natured legal shootout with lots of shots fired into the air and perhaps a few at the feet of opposition counselors, but in the end the parties retired to their respective saloons to reload and revise their aim.

30th Circuit Chief Judge Jeffrey Hamilton ironed out several of the discovery questions for information sought by Wise County Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp, which may or may not make moot his more serious endeavor to subpoena Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and the secretary of the commonwealth.

Last year, McAuliffe attempted to restore the civil rights of more than 156,000 convicted felons in a move declared unconstitutional by the Virginia Supreme Court, which also later denied a request by opponents of the governor’s action to find him in contempt for churning out individual rights restoration orders.

Four of the petitioners — one was unavailable for Thursday’s hearing because he works out of state — are represented by Richard Kennedy.

Another petitioner is represented by Walt Rivers, who fired an unexpected opening salvo when it was revealed he filed a motion to join Slemp’s motion to subpoena Virginia’s top elected officials because, as Rivers told the judge on Thursday, their testimony might actually assist his client’s case.

Kennedy took issue with Slemp’s motion, however, and argued to quash it.

Hamilton managed to steer the parties toward at least some resolution of Slemp’s discovery issues, setting a Jan. 4 hearing to review where things stand at that time before scheduling a hearing at a later date on the merits of  whether any of the petitioners can have their right to possess firearms restored.

“I am making no ruling on any merits at all,” Hamilton made clear to Slemp, Kennedy and Rivers, not just Thursday but also Jan. 4. Hamilton did address a number of Slemp’s discovery questions the judge deemed reasonable for the petitioners to answer, however, while also declaring two or three likely “unanswerable.”

While other civil rights restored by McAuliffe, such as the right to vote, required no further court review, other than whether his actions were constitutional, convicted felons with civil rights restored by a governor in Virginia must still petition a circuit court to have their right to possess firearms restored.

In fact, a petitioner received such approval in the same courtroom where Thursday’s hearing was held. That petitioner, represented by none other than state Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, had his petition to possess firearms approved by 30th Circuit Judge Chad Dotson on Monday.

It was at a prior petitioner hearing in Wise County Circuit Court in February where Dotson questioned the validity of that person’s restoration of rights (Tickles v. Commonwealth) or at least the court’s desire for more information on that point, including the thorny challenge to whether McAuliffe’s actions are even constitutional, that set Slemp off on a quest to have those questions answered for the current set of petitioners, leading to Thursday’s legal fusillade with all guns now holstered until January.

For their part, Slemp and Kennedy are sticking to their guns when it comes to subpoenaing the governor and lieutenant governor.

Based on the Virginia Supreme Court’s initial ruling (Howell v. Commonwealth) and the local Tickles case, Slemp is challenging the validity of whether those civil rights were constitutionally restored.

Slemp said Thursday's hearing went pretty much as he expected.

“Today, we argued against giving firearms to a kidnapper, a burglar, a federal convict, a drug dealer who lives in another state, and a man convicted of illegally possessing guns. These felons have claimed that their civil rights were restored by the Governor, but rulings in cases before the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Wise County Circuit Court has said that McAuliffe previously violated the Virginia Constitution with similar restorations,” Slemp said in a written statement issued following Thursday’s hearing.

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