Virginia Supreme Court sides with state making way for removal of Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/AP) — After more than a year of legal battles, the Supreme Court of Virginia has sided with the state. The decision paves the way for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue.

In June 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments in two lawsuits that challenged Governor Ralph Northam’s order to remove the Robert E. Lee statue. Northam announced his intentions to have the statue removed in the summer of 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 Robert E. Lee statue is the last Confederate statue towering over Monument Avenue. In 2020, The New York Time Style Magazine published an article listing the Robert E. Lee statue as one of the 25 most influential works of American protest art since WWII.

The City of Richmond, which was the capital of the Confederacy for most of the Civil War, has removed all but one Confederate statue.

Robert E. Lee Monument
On Thursday, September 2, 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia released two opinions siding with the state on the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from Monument Avenue in Richmond. (Photo: 8News Reporter Autumn Childress)

Helen Marie Taylor, a long-time resident of Monument Avenue, and other property owners were fighting to keep the statue standing and filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court. Taylor believes that an 1889 joint resolution of the Virginia General Assembly accepting the statue and agreeing to maintain it as a monument to Lee is binding on the Governor.

In another lawsuit, William Gregory, a descendant of the landowners, argued that the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the statue.

In two opinions, the Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments.

As the judge issued her ruling, a group of area faith leaders pushing for an end to police brutality gathered near the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue. (photo taken by 8News)

In the case of Gregory v Northam, the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond sided with the state on the removal of the statue saying that the plaintiff had not, “articulated a legally viable cause of action.” Gregory appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Virginia and upon hearing the arguments, the court upheld the Circuit Court’s ruling. The Supreme Court of Virginia’s order states that Gregory has no property right related to the Lee statute.

In the case of Taylor v Northam, the Virginia Supreme Court found that Taylor’s claims are without merit. They affirmed the judgment of the circuit court and immediately dissolve all injunctions imposed by the circuit court.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring reacted to the Supreme Court of Virginia’s decision on Twitter saying that the statue may now come down. He called the decision a “big win for a more inclusive Commonwealth.”

At a campaign stop in Henrico, the Republican nominee for the 2021 Virginia governor’s race Glenn Youngkin said he hopes the Lee statue goes to a battlefield or a museum.

“First and foremost, there’s no place for violence and tearing down statues. And in fact, we can’t airbrush away our history. Our history is our history. So, the Supreme Court, in fact, has ruled on this. And the statue is going to come down and I hope they move it to a battlefield or museum, so we don’t lose the fact that we have a history, we all need to know it. We all need to know it. But this statue is going to come down and it’s going to hopefully go to a battlefield or to a museum somewhere.”

Glenn Youngkin

After the court sided with the state, Sons of Confederate Veterans 2nd Brigade Commander Andrew Bennett Morehead accused the judges of disregarding Virginia law and acting upon political preference. 

Morehead rejected the notion that the statue was intended to intimidate people of color. He said seeing the state move forward with its plan to remove it is disappointing and disrespectful to fallen soldiers. 

“It is a tribute to arguably the greatest Virginian that ever lived. All of this is about reverence for the dead and you don’t have that in today’s society,” Morehead said. “These are the only gravestones a lot of these confederate soldiers have.” 

Gov. Northam issued the following statement after the Virginia Supreme Court ruling:

“Today’s ruling is a tremendous win for the people of Virginia. Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value. When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a lost cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years.

“I am grateful to Attorney General Mark Herring, my former counsel Rita Davis, and all those who worked so hard for this victory. This ruling is an important step towards moving the Commonwealth of Virginia and the City of Richmond forward into a more inclusive, just future. “Today it is clearthe largest Confederate monument in the South is coming down.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam

Northam’s office said that the state has been preparing for this outcome for many months. This decision by the Supreme Court allows the Department of General Services (DGS) to begin executing its removal plan.

“This process is complicated by several logistical and security concerns, including street closures and the equipment required to ensure the safe removal of the 12-ton statue,” Northam’s office stated.

The removal of the statue is set to be a multi-day process. No action is expected this week.

DGS issued a statement saying they are moving swiftly to remove the statue but it’s an extremely complex removal that requires coordination with multiple agencies to ensure safety. A date for removal and ways in which the public can view the statue will be announced at a later date.

The pedestal will stay up, at least temporarily, and the state will add a new time capsule at the monument site. A spokesperson with the governor’s office said the VMFA’s project to redesign Monument Avenue will ultimately determine the future of the pedestal.

Updates on the removal will be made available on this Twitter page: @VAmonument2021.

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