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Lawsuits seek to save Richmond’s Lee statue

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond (Photo by Maura Mazurowski)

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond (Photo by Maura Mazurowski)

(AP) A lawsuit seeking to stop Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to remove a large, historic statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond should be dismissed, Virginia’s attorney general argued in a June 16 court filing.

Attorney General Mark Herring also filed a brief opposing the plaintiff’s motion to extend an existing 10-day injunction preventing the statue’s removal.

The suit is one of two legal actions aimed at keeping the 60-foot Lee Memorial in place on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

Northam on June 4 ordered the statue’s removal, citing the pain gripping the country over the killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who pleaded for air as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.

Floyd’s death has sparked global protests that participants have vowed to turn into a sustained movement focused on addressing racial injustice and police brutality. It has also led to an intense re-examination of statues and monuments of historical figures around the world.

The lawsuit was filed against Northam by William C. Gregory, who is described as a descendant of two signatories to a 1890 deed that transferred the statue, pedestal and ground they sit on to the state. The lawsuit argues the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” them. Gregory is represented by Joseph E. Blackburn Jr. of Richmond.

The state’s brief argues the deed does not prevent the governor from removing the statue and does not entitle Gregory to injunctive relief.

“The only question is whether a single plaintiff may call upon the equitable powers of this Court and use 130-year-old documents and inapplicable doctrines of property law to countermand the Governor’s decision. He cannot,” the brief said. The brief was signed by Solicitor General Toby J. Heytens.

A hearing in the case was scheduled for June 18.

Impromptu hearings

The Gregory statue case earlier brought protests from Northam’s lawyers who called for an end to impromptu hearings.

Twice, Richmond Circuit Judge Bradley B. Cavedo heard motions without a court reporter at the behest of the plaintiff seeking to block removal of the statue, a state lawyer said.

The first time, on June 8, state lawyers were not present as the plaintiff obtained a temporary injunction barring removal. State lawyers say they were given no prior notice. The second time came June 11, when the plaintiff advised a state lawyer he would seek an extension of the injunction and then called back with the judge on the line.

The state lawyer objected to having an extemporaneous hearing without proper notice or a court reporter, according to a motion filed by Samuel T. Towell, deputy attorney general for civil litigation.

“At least two proceedings have been conducted in this case without any transcript or record being made. Defendants were excluded from the first proceeding and were given no opportunity to secure a court reporter for the second,” Towell wrote.

“Given the immense importance of this matter – and the need for transparency in connection with it – Defendants specifically request meaningful notice and the opportunity to arrange for a court reporter to transcribe all future proceedings,” the governor’s lawyers said.

The state lawyers asked Cavedo to order the parties to confer at least 12 hours before any proceeding to allow time for either side to schedule a court reporter.

Second lawsuit

Six property owners along Richmond’s Monument Avenue filed a separate lawsuit June 15 seeking to stop Northam’s administration from removing the Lee statue.

The property owners’ lawsuit challenges Northam’s authority to order the statue’s removal from its prominent place, citing in part an 1889 resolution of the General Assembly that authorized the governor of Virginia to accept the statue.

“Symbols matter, and the Virginia of today can no longer honor a racist system that enslaved millions of people,” the state’s filing said.

The plaintiffs also argue that removal of the statue would result in the loss of the National Historic Landmark designation for a stretch of Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential boulevard, and therefore “the loss of favorable tax treatment and reduction in property values.”

The complaint says the plaintiffs would suffer injury over “the loss of a priceless work of art from their neighborhood and the degradation of the internationally recognized avenue on which they reside.”

The statue is one of five memorials to the Confederacy along Monument Avenue, and the only one on state property. The Richmond City Council has expressed unanimous support for removing the rest, which demonstrators have covered with graffiti in recent weeks.

“Governor Northam is committed to removing this divisive symbol from Virginia’s capital city. We’re confident in his authority to do so, and look forward to winning in court,” his spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said in an email June 15.

The plaintiffs in the June 15 lawsuit aimed to consolidate the two cases in Richmond Circuit Court, in part because they were seeking similar relief from the court.

But Attorney General Mark Herring filed a notice of removal that day transferring the case to federal court.

“Symbols matter, and the Virginia of today can no longer honor a racist system that enslaved millions of people. Installing a grandiose monument to the Lost Cause was wrong in 1890, and demanding that it stay up forever is wrong now,” the state’s filing said.

Patrick McSweeney, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said removal confirms the legitimacy of the federal issues raised in the lawsuit.

The only plaintiff listed by name in the new lawsuit is Helen Marie Taylor, a longtime Monument Avenue resident and defender of the statues. McSweeney said she was not available for an interview.

The other plaintiffs were seeking to participate anonymously, saying in a motion that they face a risk of “retaliation by organized and violent groups” for participating in the lawsuit.

Concrete barriers were installed early June 17 around the Lee statue.
The Virginia Department of General Services said it was erecting the three-foot high concrete barriers “to protect the safety of everyone speaking out to make their voices heard as well as the structure itself,” according to a statement from the agency.

Additional reporting by VLW

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