Decision on Robert E. Lee statue deferred, likely to be made by end of next week

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/AP) — The lawsuit challenging Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s plans to remove the Robert E. Lee statue started Monday morning.

Residents who live among Monument Avenue are arguing against the removal of the statue. They argue that Gov. Ralph Northam does not have the authority to take down the statue, stating it would violate the original deed.

The residents filed the lawsuit after Northam ordered the removal of the statue in June amid the outcry and unrest caused by the death of George Floyd in police custody.

  • Isaiah Bowen, right, takes a shot as his dad, Garth Bowen, center, looks on at a basketball hoop in front of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue
  • Richmond dancers come together at the Robert E. Lee monument 2
  • Band at lee monument
  • America Protests Confederate Monuments

Meanwhile, the state is standing firm.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has called the statue “divisive” and “antiquated.” The state review board has already approved a two-step plan to remove the statue.

Herring adds that Virginia shouldn’t have to keep up the controversial Confederate statue based on a change in values.

“This is a monument to white supremacy,” he said. “It is not reflective of who we are as a Commonwealth today.”

However, Patrick McSweeney, the attorney representing those challenging Lee’s removal, argued Virginia must keep its end of the bargain from the 19th century deed.

“We have absolute confidence in Judge Marchant. He has been fair all along and I’m quite confident that he’ll make the right decision.”

From the Courthouse

Beginning Monday morning, Judge Marchant was expected to hear opening arguments and then move to witness testimony in court.

The Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office says the expected witnesses for the trial are Dr. Ed Ayers, a historian, professor and the former president of the University of Richmond, and Professor Kevin Gaines, a professor of civil rights and social justice at the University of Virginia.

It was not immediately clear whether Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant might rule from the bench. In August, he took a week before issuing a ruling on the state’s motion to dismiss the case.

But no matter Marchant’s decision, the case could take more time to unwind — it is widely expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

On Monday, the plaintiff’s main argument against removing the statue was that the 1889 contract requires the state to keep the statue up and protect it. The attorney for the Monument Avenue residents says, “there are some that cannot change, even by law.”

On the other side, the Attorney General’s office argued that the statue was an “intentional tool… to ensure white solidarity” and is “inconsistent with state values” now. They also point to the General Assembly’s recent move to allow localities to remove such statues.

On the stand, Ayers says the erection of the monument in 1889 was an attempt to show “control.”

On Monday, the judge said he would love to rule from the bench the same day, but the decision will take some time. The judge explained that both sides made good arguments, and the case would be difficult for the city and the nation.

Despite the busy week ahead, the judge promised to get a decision back; however, he is unsure if a decision will be made in the next few days.

It is likely a decision will be made by Nov. 1.

“Probably within seven to 10 days… maybe sooner,” the judge said.

Attorney General Herring says although he’s optimistic about the outcome, the state will appeal in Virginia Supreme Court if they lose. 

The state of Richmond’s monuments in 2020

Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential boulevard that once contained one of the nation’s most prominent tributes to the Confederacy, was dramatically transformed over the summer. The avenue’s other large Confederate statues, which all sat on city property, were either toppled by protesters (in the case of Jefferson Davis ) or hauled off by contractors working for the city.

Amid weeks of nightly protests, Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the statues removed, invoking his authority under a local emergency order.

The Lee statue, meanwhile, was transformed into a bustling hub of activity for demonstrators protesting police brutality and racism. The giant concrete pedestal of the statue is covered by colorful and constantly changing graffiti, many of the messages profanely denouncing police and others demanding an end to systemic racism and inequality.

A recent piece in The New York Times Style Magazine included the statue in its current state among a list of 25 of the “most influential works of American protest art since World War II.”

The 21-foot-high (6.4-meter-high) equestrian statue, which the state has said weighs about 12 tons (11 metric tonnes), sits atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall. Northam’s spokeswoman said Friday a decision has not yet been made about what will be done with the pedestal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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