Richmond judge could soon decide fate of Robert E. Lee statue

Richmond

Depending on what takes place in court on Thursday afternoon, the state could look to remove the Lee monument as soon as possible.

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The fate of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee statue could be sealed Thursday, as a judge is expected to hear arguments in two cases challenging Gov. Ralph Northam’s authority to order the removal of the Confederate monument and could possibly rule to lift a temporary injunction blocking it from coming down.

Lawsuits aimed at preventing the state from removing the Lee statue have been filed, dropped, amended and refiled since the governor announced that he had instructed the Virginia Department of General Services to take it down as soon as possible in early June.

On Tuesday, an attorney representing a group of Monument Avenue property owners refiled a lawsuit after dropping a similar one before a court hearing last week. The plaintiffs in the complaint include longtime Monument Avenue resident Helen Marie Taylor, three other property owners and Evan Morgan Massey, a trustee of a property owner.

The most recent lawsuit from the residents seeks an injunction to halt the monument’s removal. An injunction blocking the state from removing the statue has already been granted in a case filed by William Gregory, a man who says he’s a descendant of the monument’s original donor.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Bradley Cavedo granted a temporary injunction in early June and indefinitely extended it on June 18 after giving Gregory 21 days to amend the original lawsuit, which Cavedo called flawed. Cavedo has since recused himself from the lawsuit, saying that his home, which is located near the monument, could “create the appearance” of bias.

The amended suit, which was filed on July 9, claims that if the state fails to guard and protect the monument it violates provisions in deeds from 1890, 1887 and also the state constitution and law.

The complaint also states that if the injunction is lifted, the defendants in the case, Northam and Joseph Damico, the director of the state Department of General Services, “will be allowed to breach their legal and contractual obligations to the Plaintiffs with impunity.”

Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant was appointed to replace Cavedo, and is expected to oversee both cases on Thursday afternoon. Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Virginia Attorney General Herring, said in an email Thursday that the state was notified late Wednesday night about the attempt from the Monument Avenue residents to have a hearing on Thursday.

Gomer wrote that “it is unclear whether this hearing will occur or not.” Herring’s office received a brief from Gregory’s attorney on Thursday morning opposing the attorney general’s motion to dismiss the case.

Herring has urged Marchant to dissolve the injunction preventing the state from taking down the monument. Along with the motion to dissolve the injunction, Herring also filed a brief defending the state’s authority to remove the Confederate statue from Richmond’s Monument Avenue. 

“Plaintiff’s claims are antithetical to foundational principles of democratic governance, and those principles should begin and end this case,” Herring’s brief states. “It is well-settled that government-owned monuments on government-owned property are core government speech that inevitably convey messages about what a political community believes and values.”

Depending on the judge’s ruling, the Lee statue could soon be taken off its pedestal as Northam did say he ordered it to be removed as soon as crews could do so. The plan to remove the statue from Monument Avenue, which calls for the sculpture to be “partially disassembled” into three sections, has already been unanimously approved by a state review board.

The process would require two phases, one to take down the 13-ton sculpture and another to remove the monument’s pedestal, the conservator selected by the state, B.R. Howard Conservation, said in the plan. The firm writes that based on an on-site inspection, the sculpture can be taken from its base “as a single unit,” but would need to be disassembled to “meet the highway height restrictions” during transport.

“It is believed, based upon recent on-site observation of the monument and the review of written accounts which describe the assembly of the sculpture in 1890, that the bronze sculpture will be separated into three sections, cast base and legs of the horse, the body and head of the horse, and the figure, from the waist up,” the plan states.

Dena Potter, spokeswoman for the state Department of General Services, told 8News that the exact number of cuts required is still not clear and won’t be until the statue is removed from its pedestal.

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