RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Outgoing Attorney General Mark Herring has issued an official opinion overruling 58 racially discriminatory opinions from former Virginia attorneys general that he said used the office “to perpetuate injustice.”
Herring (D) announced his opinion in a press conference Thursday alongside state Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) and Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), the two lawmakers who asked Herring for an opinion on whether any past opinions that relied on or promoted racially discriminatory laws are still in effect.
Herring’s office found that between 1904 and 1967, Virginia attorneys general issued at least 58 opinions that either interpreted or applied laws that denied Black citizens equal rights, education access and established unconstitutional voting barriers.
“As the commonwealth of Virginia committed to Jim Crow and massive resistance during the early and mid-20th century, attorneys general were more than just passive observers,” Herring said. “They were often key players building a legal framework designed to defend the indefensible, the unjust and the unconstitutional.”
The opinions that Herring’s predecessors issued and that he overturned include ones that applied or interpreted state laws that imposed poll taxes, banned interracial marriage and established and mandated segregation in public schools and transportation.
“The Virginia Attorney General has too often in the past been used to protect the powerful and the status quo,” Sen. Locke said Thursday. “Virginians deserve better than that. Virginians deserve an attorney general that will stand up for them and ensure justice, equality and opportunity for all Virginians, not just some.”
Sen. Locke said past Virginia attorneys general used their authority to support racist, unjust and unconstitutional laws. She added that Herring’s opinion “is truly closing that chapter in the history of our commonwealth” and helping Virginia move forward.
“Attorney General Herring’s decision to overturn racially discriminatory opinions is fantastic. I’m glad he did that and I applaud him,” Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares said in a statement.
With Miyares set to take office in two days, this opinion from Herring is one of the last formal actions from the two-term attorney general. Del. Bagby applauded Herring for the step, saying he could have ignored the request for an opinion with his term coming to an end.
“But this, this means a great deal,” Del. Bagby said. “Not just to ancestors but to individuals who have lived through.”
When asked about the timing of the opinion and why the effort took so long, Herring said “It has been a massive project going through every single opinion we have done but I saw that my term was coming to an end. I knew it was really important for the commonwealth for us to get this across the finish line.”
Virginia State Conference NAACP President Robert Barnette said the overturned opinions “unfortunately shaped the laws, life and culture for too long.” He called Herring’s opinion “an important step towards true reconciliation.”
In his opinion’s conclusion, Herring noted that the discriminatory laws in the 58 opinions have been declared unconstitutional and/or have been repealed by the Virginia General Assembly. He wrote that the 58 opinions his office found “are hereby overruled to the extent they apply or interpret racially discriminatory state laws.”
Formal opinions from the Virginia Attorney General do not create new laws or amend those on the books, but are seen as an analysis of the law or legal advice. Only those authorized, such as the governor, state legislators, head of a state agency, can request an opinion from the attorney general.