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Giant Lee statue in Richmond can come down, Virginia Supreme Court rules

“Values change and public policy changes, too” in a democracy, the court said in its 7-0 decision.
Image: General Robert E. Lee
Statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, on July 31, 2017.Steve Helber / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday that the state can remove an iconic statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a prominent spot in its capital city, saying “values change and public policy changes, too” in a democracy.

The 7-0 decision cited testimony from historians that the enormous statue was erected in 1890 to honor the southern white citizenry’s defense of a pre-Civil War life that depended on slavery and the subjugation of Black people.

More than a century later, its continued display “communicates principles that many believe to be inconsistent with the values the Commonwealth currently wishes to express," the justices said.

The high court’s decision came in two lawsuits filed by Virginia residents who attempted to block Gov. Ralph Northam's order to remove the bronze equestrian sculpture, which shows Lee in military attire atop a massive stone pedestal.

Virginia promised to forever maintain the statue in the 1887 and 1890 deeds that transferred its ownership to the state. But the justices said that obligation no longer applies.

“Those restrictive covenants are unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable because their effect is to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees,” the justices wrote.

Northam announced his decision in June 2020, 10 days after George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked protests over police brutality and racism in cities across the country, including Richmond. The nationally recognized statue became the epicenter of a protest movement in Virginia after Floyd’s death and its base is now covered with graffiti.

Separate lawsuits were filed by a group of residents who own property near the statue and William Gregory, a descendant of signatories to the 1890 deed that transferred the statue, pedestal and land they sit on to the state.

Gregory argued that the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the statue. And five property owners argued that the governor is bound by a 1889 joint resolution of the Virginia General Assembly that accepted the statue and agreed to maintain it as a monument to Lee.

Plaintiffs' attorneys told the justices during a June 8 hearing that the governor exceeded his authority under the Virginia Constitution. Attorney General Mark Herring’s office countered that a small group of private citizens cannot force the state to maintain a monument that no longer reflects its values.

The high court sided with the governor, citing testimony from historians who said the statue was erected as a monument to the Confederacy's “Lost Cause,” and is now widely seen as a symbol of racial injustice.

“The essence of our republican form of government is for the sovereign people to elect representatives, who then chart the public policy of the Commonwealth or of the Nation. Democracy is inherently dynamic. Values change and public policy changes too. The Government of the Commonwealth is entitled to select the views that it supports and the values that it wants to express," Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn wrote.

Virginia Democrats cheered the court's ruling. Northam's statement called it “a tremendous win for the people of Virginia.”

“For far too long, the Lee statue stood tall in our capital and represented nothing but division and white supremacy — but it is finally coming down,” tweeted state Sen. Louise Lucas, one of the state’s most powerful Black lawmakers.

Patrick McSweeney, an attorney for the residents, declined to comment immediately, saying in an email that his clients have to review the court's rulings. He did not say whether they are ring appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gregory's attorney, Joseph Blackburn Jr., did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

“I think this is the end of the line for the plaintiffs,” said University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger, who has followed the cases closely. He said the property owners’ lawsuit contains one contracts claim under the U.S. Constitution that could be the basis of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he didn't think it would succeed, and “the Gregory plaintiff has nowhere else to go for sure.”

Northam's office said in a news release that the state's Department of General Services had begun work on the logistical and security preparations for the statue's removal, but “no action on the statue” was expected until at least next week.

The state has been working on detailed plans for removal that also include the extrication of a time capsule thought to be tucked inside the base.

Image: Robert E. Lee statue
People gather around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., on June 4, 2020.Ryan M. Kelly / AFP - Getty Images

The 21-foot (6-meter) statue is expected to be cut into pieces that can fit under highway overpasses as it is taken to an undisclosed storage site.

The Northam administration has said it will seek public input on the statue’s future. For now, the 40-foot (12-meter) pedestal will be left in place amid efforts to rethink the design of Richmond's Monument Avenue. Some racial justice advocates see the pedestal as a symbol of the protest movement that erupted after Floyd’s killing and don’t want it moved.

The Lee statue was the first of five Confederate monuments to be erected on the avenue, at a time when the Civil War and Reconstruction were long over, but Jim Crow racial segregation laws were on the rise.

When the statue arrived in 1890 from France, where it was created, thousands of Virginians used wagons to help pull it in pieces for more than a mile to the place where it now stands. White residents celebrated the statue of the Civil War hero and native Virginian, but many Black residents have long seen it as a monument that glorifies slavery.

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 on city land since Floyd’s death, which prompted the removal of Confederate monuments in cities across the country.