State wins Lee monument suit; removal of statue is delayed
Ruling in Richmond Circuit Court is stayed pending appeal by plaintiffs
Updated Oct. 29: Five plaintiffs seeking to keep the monument in place have filed a notice of appeal with the Richmond Circuit Court, according to the attorney general’s office, which provided the document. The notice was signed by Helen Marie Taylor, Evan Morgan Massey, Janet Heltzel, George D. Hostetler and John-Lawrence Smith, all of whom live in the Monument Avenue neighborhood.
In a victory for the state government, a Richmond Circuit Court judge ruled Tuesday that the Gen. Robert E. Lee monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue can be removed. However, the actual taking down of the statue has been delayed, as the court suspended the removal order pending an appeal.
According to the order by Judge W. Reilly Marchant released Tuesday, after an Oct. 19 hearing, plaintiffs Helen Marie Taylor, Evan Morgan Massey and Janet Heltzel — all Monument Avenue-area residents — were denied an injunction against the removal of the state-owned monument. Marchant ruled that “existing restrictive covenants” in the property deeds dating back several decades “would be contrary to current public policy as established by the Virginia General Assembly.”
Marchant ordered that the removal of the statue, which Gov. Ralph Northam directed June 4, could not take place until after an appeal is resolved.
In a statement issued via Twitter, Virginia Attorney Gen. Mark Herring, whose office represented the governor and other defendants, wrote, “We WON the Lee statue case after a judge found that it was raised against a backdrop of white supremacy and that it is against public policy to keep it up. The ruling is stayed pending appeal, but this is a HUGE win and we’re on the path to bringing down this relic.”
Patrick McSweeney, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said in an email that his clients plan to appeal: “There is a strong argument favoring the plaintiffs on appeal regarding the restrictive covenant, based on previous Supreme Court decisions.” The plaintiffs have 30 days to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court.
— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) October 27, 2020
Following racial justice protests that broke out around the nation after the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd in May at the hands of a police officer, Northam announced in early June that he would direct the state Department of General Services to remove the 130-year-old, 12-ton, six-story statue of the Confederate general “as soon as possible.” Unlike other Confederate statues on the avenue in the heart of Richmond, which are located on city-owned property, Lee Circle is owned by the state and was deeded from city residents when the statue was erected in 1890.
The 1887-90 deeds, which state that the statue must remain in place in perpetuity, have been the basis of the plaintiffs’ argument. In early August, Judge Bradley B. Cavedo ordered a temporary injunction against the statue’s removal; he later recused himself because he lives in the historic Monument Avenue neighborhood.
Over the summer, the monument’s pedestal has been covered with graffiti and been the site of protests, music, dance and pickup basketball games. Lee Circle was informally renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle, in memory of a 24-year-old Black teacher who was having a mental crisis when he was killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018. Earlier this month, a group of artists and critics in The New York Times declared the Lee monument — as it currently stands — the No. 1 piece of American protest art since World War II.
In September, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the removal of all other Confederate monuments on the avenue, leaving Lee standing alone.