Virginia Republican leaders have hired a prominent conservative lawyer to lead an expected court challenge to Gov. Terry McAuliffe's recent order restoring voting rights for 206,000 felons.

General Assembly Republicans announced Monday that they have retained Charles J. Cooper, a former assistant attorney general under President Ronald Reagan who was once named "Republican lawyer of the year." A founding member and chairman of Cooper & Kirk PLLC in Washington, Cooper defended California's ban on same-sex marriage before the United States Supreme Court in 2013.

“It is the obligation of the legislative and judicial branches to serve as a check on overreaches of executive power," House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, said in a prepared statement. "To that end, we are prepared to uphold the Constitution of Virginia and the rule of law by challenging Governor McAuliffe’s order in court."

"We have retained Mr. Cooper to examine the legal options to remedy this Washington-style overreach by the executive branch," said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City. "Mr. Cooper is an extremely qualified attorney and we have every confidence he will proceed prudently, judiciously, and expeditiously.”

Taxpayer funds will not be used to fund a lawsuit, Republicans said.

McAuliffe has said he has the legal and constitutional authority to restore voting and civil rights for all felons who had completed their sentences, probation and parole by April 22.

McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said Monday that the governor is "disappointed that Republicans would go to such lengths to continue locking people who have served their time out of their democracy."

"These Virginians are qualified to vote and they deserve a voice, not more partisan schemes to disenfranchise them," Coy said.

Past governors have restored rights on an case-by-case basis for ex-offenders who applied to regain their rights.

Republicans have argued McAuliffe overstepped by issuing a blanket order that applies to violent and nonviolent felons regardless of whether they submitted an application. Past governors have concluded they did not have the power to restore rights en masse. Coming in a presidential election year, Republicans have accused McAuliffe of playing politics by adding thousands of likely Democratic voters to the rolls as a boost to longtime McAuliffe friend Hillary Clinton.

McAuliffe's order has received national acclaim in progressive circles. Supporters have applauded the order as a bold move that does away with a restriction that disproportionately impacts African-Americans and brings Virginia more in line with policies of other states.

Graham Moomaw reports for the Richmond Times Dispatch

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