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Order removing Lee portrait from Louisa courtroom issued

Where a defendant in a criminal case has renewed a “Motion To Conduct Trial in a Courtroom That Does Not Contain Confederate Symbols, Memorials and Iconography,” the court orders that a portrait of Robert E. Lee will be removed but other portraits of confederate officers with “substantial Louisa County ties” will remain.


Defendant’s renewed motion seeks to have four portraits of confederate officers removed from the Louisa County Circuit Courtroom.

In the Nov. 15, 2019, ruling in this matter, the court mistakenly believed that defendant’s motion was withdrawn as to three small black and white portraits of confederate officers Andrew J. Richardson, Clayton G. Coleman and Robert Lewis Dabney, that are displayed in the Louisa County Circuit Courtroom. The fourth portrait is of Robert E. Lee.

“Other than being portraits of individuals who served as Confederate officers, these [three] portraits present few, if any, of the concerns of the Lee portrait. Each of the portraits is in black and white, not in color, as is the Lee portrait. Each of the portraits is not only substantially smaller than the Lee portrait, they are smaller than the typical portrait within the courtroom.

“The location of the portraits within the courtroom is not nearly as prominent as that of the Lee portrait. Neither Richardson nor Dabney are in uniform, as is Lee. Clayton Coleman’s portrait depicts him in uniform; however, the portrait is so dark that while one could reasonably conclude that it is a mid-nineteenth century military uniform, it is not apparent to the casual observer that it is a Confederate uniform.”

Substantial ties

Richardson, Coleman and Dabney had “substantial Louisa County ties outside of their wartime service, unlike Lee.

“Richardson served Louisa County as Commissioner of Revenue for 37 years, and additionally as a delegate in the General Assembly. Clayton Coleman is described as a court justice and state senator. Robert Lewis Dabney was born in Louisa, County, and was a notable theologian, minister, teacher and leader in the Southern Presbyterian Church.

“Their peacetime pursuits establish a substantial basis for why the citizens of Louisa County would wish to honor them. With that said, however, with each of the three subjects having been dead for well over a century, the Court can only conclude that only the most ardent student of Civil War history or Louisa County history, or perhaps their descendants, would have any idea who any of the three gentlemen were. Unlike General Lee, the Court finds nothing iconic about them or their portraits.

“Consequently, the Court sees no reason to reconsider its analysis previously set forth in its November 15, 2019 opinion letter which concluded, generally, the degree to which a citizen should be honored by having his or her portrait placed in the circuit courtroom was a political issue, best resolved by the citizens’ representatives, the Louisa County Board of Supervisors.

“Consequently, the motion to remove the Richardson, Co1eman, and Dabney portraits is denied.”

Lee portrait

The court now addresses the removal of Lee’s portrait from the courtroom. The court is aware that the General Assembly abolished the Lee-Jackson holiday and has given local governments control “over the disposition of war memorials.

“In the Court’s view, these are precisely the types of action which the Court alluded to in its November 15, 2019 opinion holding that these matters were properly political matters to be addressed by the people’s elected representatives.”

The court still believes this but “notes that the Louisa County Board of Supervisors has not accepted the Court’s invitation to address this issue, which was implicit in its November 15, 2019 letter opinion. Given the letter recently sent by the Louisa County Attorney to counsel in this case, the Court can only infer that the Board has no intention of addressing the issue, or at least not in a fashion deemed timely by this Court.

“The Court will note, parenthetically, that letter seemed to misunderstand the Court’s opinion. The Court never stated that it did not have the power to remove the portrait; it obviously does. The Court’s point was that matters of that nature were best addressed by the elected representatives of the people rather than the unelected judge.

“While Robert E. Lee’s place in history has been controversial, undoubtedly, for some time, the tenor of that debate has changed remarkably in the ten months which have passed since the Court last addressed the issue. The image of Robert E. Lee has gone from one being deemed unworthy by some of being honored because of his significant role in a war which had a goal of preserving the institution of slavery to one of abiding racial prejudice and hatred which bears some level of responsibility for the real ills suffered by African American citizens some 150 years after his death.

“Despite the existence of legislative remedies to effect the removal of statues of Lee and other Confederate icons, criminal mayhem directed at those symbols is implicitly, and in some instances explicitly, condoned by some Commonwealth and municipal officials.

“Given this, the court is compelled to conclude that the level of controversy surrounding the image of Robert E. Lee is sufficiently intense that it is foreseeable that it may impair the fair administration of justice. More importantly, given the significantly prevalent image of Robert E. Lee as a figure of racial hatred and prejudice, the Court is compelled to conclude that such image is unwelcoming to many of the African Americans, and others, who are compelled to appear our courtroom as litigants, witnesses, jurors, attorneys and judges.”

The county will be ordered to remove the Lee portrait and a commemorative plaque by Sept. 23, 2020.

Commonwealth v. Murphy, Case No. CR16000204-01 to -05, CR 16000239-01 to -02, CR17000054-00, Sept. 10, 2020; 16th Cir. Ct. (Sanner). Douglas A. Ramseur, Richard W. Johnson Jr., Matthew L. Engle, Rusty E. McGuire for the parties. VLW 020-8-098, 4 pp.

VLW 020-8-098

Virginia Lawyers Weekly