The supreme court of Virginia will this week hear arguments in legal challenges to Governor Ralph Northam’s plan to take down a 131-year-old statue of Confederate Gen Robert E Lee, a move met with widespread praise from activists who had long seen it as a symbol of white supremacy.
A year after Northam’s announcement, the enormous bronze equestrian statue still towers over a traffic circle on Monument Avenue in downtown Richmond, kept in place by two lawsuits.
Among the central issues to be decided by the court whether the Commonwealth of Virginia is bound by a decision made by state officials more than 130 years ago, or can it undo that decision because the public’s attitude toward Confederate symbols has changed?
Attorneys for the plaintiffs will argue that the governor does not have the authority to remove the statue, while attorney general Mark Herring will ask the court to uphold a lower court’s rulings.
Northam’s decision to take down the statue was announced 10 days after George Floyd was murdered under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, during nightly protests over police brutality and racism around the country, including Richmond.
Separate lawsuits were filed by residents who own property near the statue and a descendant of signatories to a 1890 deed that transferred the statue, pedestal and land they sit on to the state.
In the latter lawsuit, William Gregory argues that the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the statue.
In the other suit, five property owners, including lead plaintiff Helen Marie Taylor, say an 1889 joint resolution of the Virginia general assembly accepting the statue and agreeing to maintain it is binding. They say Northam’s order to remove the statue exceeded the governor’s authority.
During a trial in October, the state argued that it cannot be forced to maintain a statue that no longer reflects its values. Richmond circuit court Judge W Reilly Marchant agreed, finding that enforcing the 19th-century deed would violate “current public policy”.
The judge cited two budget bills approved by the general assembly last year that repealed the 1889 act authorizing the then-governor to accept the gift of the monument and directed the Department of General Services to remove the 13-ton sculpture. The plaintiffs argue that the budget bills were unconstitutional.
“What the residents are asserting is that the state cannot arbitrarily take away their property rights, or remove a historic landmark, in violation of the Constitution of Virginia. If the Governor finds this assertion staggering, it can only be because he has an unlimited vision of governmental power. The state must comply with its contractual obligations, just like private citizens,“ attorney Patrick McSweeney argues in a legal brief filed with the supreme court.
The city of Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy for most of the civil war, has removed more than a dozen other pieces of Confederate statuary since Floyd’s death, which prompted the removal of monuments around the country.
Herring argues that leaving the massive monument to Lee in place will continue to cause pain to many people who see it as a symbol of oppression.
“This monument to Virginia’s racist history has held a place of honor in Richmond for too long. The Lee statue does not represent the ideals Virginians live by today and the inclusive community that we strive to be and it is time to bring it down,” Herring said.
Gregory’s attorney, Joseph Blackburn, argues that removal of the statue would cause irreparable harm.
“For 130 years, his family has taken pride in the Lee Monument and his family role in the placement of the Monument on land originally belonging to his family and given to the Commonwealth in consideration for the Commonwealth’s guarantee that it would perpetually care for and protect the Monument,” Blackburn wrote in a brief.
It is unclear how long the supreme court will take to issue its decision. The court generally averages about six to nine weeks to issue rulings after oral arguments, but there are wide variations among cases.
The statue is now covered with graffiti.