Virginia’s Supreme Court will hear arguments this week in legal challenges to Governor Ralph Northam’s plan to tear down a 131-year-old statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee, a move that received widespread praise from activists who had long viewed it as a symbol of white supremacy.
A year after Northam’s announcement, the massive bronze equestrian statue still towers over a roundabout on Monument Avenue in downtown Richmond, held in place by two lawsuits.
Among the central questions for the court to decide, is whether the Commonwealth of Virginia is subject to a decision made by state officials more than 130 years ago, or whether it can undo that decision because the public’s attitude toward Confederate symbols has changed.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys 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 the rulings of a lower court.
Northam’s decision to tear down the statue was announced 10 days after George Floyd was killed under the knees of a Minneapolis police officer, during nightly protests of police brutality and racism across the country, including Richmond.
Residents who own property near the statue and a descendant of the signatories to an 1890 deed filed separate lawsuits that transferred the statue, the pedestal, and the land on which they sit to the state.
In the latest lawsuit, William Gregory argues that the state agreed to “faithfully protect” and “affectionately protect” the statue.
In the other lawsuit, five owners, including lead plaintiff Helen Marie Taylor, say that a joint 1889 resolution of the Virginia general assembly accepting the statue and agreeing to keep 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The judge cited two budget bills passed by the general assembly last year that repealed the 1889 law that authorized the then governor to accept the gift of the monument and ordered the Department of General Services to remove the 13-ton sculpture. The plaintiffs argue that the budget bills were unconstitutional.
“What residents are saying is that the state cannot arbitrarily take away their property rights or remove a historic landmark, in violation of the Virginia Constitution. If the governor finds this statement astonishing, 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, ”argues attorney Patrick McSweeney 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 Confederate statues since Floyd’s death, prompting the removal of monuments across the country.
Herring argues that leaving the massive Lee memorial in place will continue to cause pain to many who see it as a symbol of oppression.
“This monument to Virginia’s racist history has held a place of honor in Richmond for far too long. Lee’s statue does not represent the ideals Virginians live today and the inclusive community we strive to be and it is time to tear it down, ”Herring said.
Gregory’s attorney, Joseph Blackburn, argues that removing the statue would cause irreparable damage.
“For 130 years, his family has taken pride in the Lee Monument and his family’s role in locating the Monument on land that originally belonged to his family and was given to the Commonwealth in consideration of the Commonwealth’s assurance that it would care. and would perpetually 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 has an average of six to nine weeks to render judgments after oral arguments, but there are wide variations between cases.
The statue is now covered in graffiti.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism