A federal judge struck down an obscure element of Virginia’s presidential primary laws Monday, handing a symbolic victory to a Republican National Convention delegate who has refused to support Donald Trump.
U.S. District Judge Robert E. Payne permanently barred Virginia from enforcing a law that requires a winner-take-all system in which the first-place finisher of the GOP primary would technically be entitled to all 49 of the state’s delegates. The statute conflicts with the Republican Party’s primary rules, which allocate Virginia’s delegates proportionally based on the primary results.
Carroll “Beau” Correll, a Winchester attorney who supported Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, argued that the state law violates his constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of association by requiring him and all other delegates to vote for Trump on the convention’s first ballot.
Payne agreed that Correll, a delegate representing the 10th Congressional District, shouldn’t face criminal penalties for political activity at the convention, where anti-Trump forces are planning a longshot attempt to stop the controversial businessman from being chosen as the presidential nominee. But the judge did not accept Correll’s more sweeping theory that all delegates are free to support whomever they want regardless of party rules.
After six hours of oral arguments last week, Correll said he hoped a favorable ruling would inspire other rogue delegates to vote their conscience without fear of prosecution in the 20 states with similar laws.
Both sides claimed victory Monday following the ruling.
“Today’s decision should give comfort to all delegates that they cannot be punished for voting their conscience at the Republican National Convention,” David Rivkin Jr., an attorney for Correll, said in a statement released Monday by Delegates Unbound, a group promoting the free-delegate argument. “The court’s decision follows more than 40 years of precedent in firmly rejecting Donald Trump’s legal opinion that delegates are obligated by law to vote for him.”
David A. Warrington, an attorney representing pro-Trump delegates from Virginia who oppose Correll, called the ruling a win for his side because it upholds RNC binding rules. Warrington said his clients don’t care about the state law, but wanted to stop a “Trojan horse” lawsuit meant to upend party rules.
“What they wanted was a ruling to get a federal judge to say delegates can’t be bound,” Warrington said. “This ruling says exactly the opposite.”
Trump campaign attorney Don McGahn said in a statement that the ruling is “a fatal blow to the Anti-Trump agitators.”
Before the ruling, 17 Virginia delegates were bound to Trump on the first ballot in Cleveland, Ohio, because of his victory in the state’s March 1 primary. That will remain the case unless the anti-Trump forces can cause a change to convention rules. The rest of Virginia’s delegates are bound to candidates who have dropped out, with stronger primary finishers getting a larger share.
In last week’s hearing, state attorneys said no one has ever been prosecuted under the convention voting law.
Still, Payne found the threat of prosecution credible enough to grant Correll’s request for injunctive and declaratory relief. The judge said the state’s interest in primary voting can’t support a law that restricts convention activity.
“That is certainly so where the state statute dictates how delegates must discharge the most important duty of all — voting for candidates — does so in direct contradiction of the party rules,” Payne wrote in his 65-page opinion.
Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark R. Herring, said the opinion “is not expected to significantly change the practical legal landscape in Virginia” and reiterated the state’s position that it had no intention of pursuing criminal charges against Correll.
“This has always been an intraparty fight within the Republican Party, but the state was unfortunately dragged into this fight yet again,” Kelly said in an email.
Preconvention meetings are beginning in Cleveland this week. The proceedings officially begin July 18.