NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Advocates for preserving statues commemorating the heroes of the Confederacy stumped a federal judge during a hearing last week.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier listened with skepticism to arguments over whether the city should hold off on removing four Confederate monuments until a lawsuit filed by four preservation groups has been resolved in court.
As attorneys for the plaintiffs the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the Monumental Task Force Committee Inc. and Beauregard Camp No. 130, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans tried to explain how the city erred in deciding to remove the monuments, Barbier several times asked for clarification and often said he didn't think the issue belongs in federal court.
Plaintiffs filed a lengthy lawsuit last month after New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed a controversial ordinance declaring four prominently placed monuments celebrating Confederate heroes a "nuisance," and giving notice of the city's plans to remove them to a civil war memorial on private land using privately donated money.
The plaintiffs' lawsuit claimed the city doesn't own the land the monuments are on and the monuments are protected by state and federal law. Plaintiffs also said that since federal money was used to construct the streetcar line, the areas surrounding the streetcar cannot change.
Franklin Jones, an attorney for plaintiffs, told Barbier to consider the statues from an artistic rather than political perspective.
"These are priceless works of art," Jones said. "These are not just monuments you wrap a sling around and move" to another location.
Last June, after a gunman killed nine and wounded three others in a predominately African-American church in Charleston, S.C., Mayor Landrieu called for the removal of the Confederate memorials in New Orleans.
During a 60-day public input period that followed Landrieu's proposal, two city commissions called for the ultimate removal of four monuments associated with the Confederacy.
Among them, a 60-foot-tall marble column and statue dedicated to Gen. Robert E. Lee; a large statue of Louisiana born Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard on horseback; a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy; and an obelisk dedicated to white supremacists who wanted to overthrow a biracial New Orleans Reconstruction government.
Jones said the plaintiffs have spent countless hours and thousands of dollars keeping the monuments nice and, citing prior rulings on property, said his clients should have a stake in the monuments' fates.
"You're not seeking compensation, you're seeking to tell the owner of the property what to do with that property," Barbier said. That argument "sounds like a real stretch to me."
Barbier said it is normally within a city's discretion to take down its own property.
As to the plaintiffs' arguments the city is barred from removing the monuments because they are along the streetcar line, Barbier said he was stumped.
"I've got to tell you," he said. "I'm having a hard time understanding your argument about how moving these monuments will adversely affect the streetcar line. The streetcar will still be running. ... you're talking about the streetcar projects... from years ago...there were federal funds to finance the streetcar projects... you're saying the federal government shouldn't have spent federal funds years ago because they should have been thinking about the effect on these monuments?"
"Yes," Jones said. "The U.S. government gave the city of New Orleans $200 million to build the streetcars, and the city is saying, 'We're going to take this money and use it to take down monuments'..."
"Oh wow," a member of the public sitting in the gallery said. Barbier stopped Jones to remind gallery members they could face sanctions for interrupting.
Jones finished: "We just want to know whether the city is taking money and then thwarting the purpose of that by using it to destroy historic monuments."
Barbier said he was confused. Here ,"there's no federal money and no transportation project involved," he said. "I went back and read your legal memorandum at least five times, and I've got to tell you, I don't even understand your argument."
Jones said his clients are simply trying to preserve the monuments and have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on restoring them over the years.
"Say I spend money boarding up the windows in my neighbor's home because he can't make it back to town after Katrina," Barbier said, "does that give me a right to his property?"
Rebecca Dietz, representing New Orleans, told Barbier the city is prepared to remove the monuments, except for one snag: the contractor for the job quit after receiving death threats.
"We will need to find a new contractor," Dietz said.
Adam Swensek, for New Orleans, told Barbier that being on the historic registry has nothing to do with preserving a monument. "The fact that the Lee monument is on federal registry does not render that monument sacrosanct," he said.
As to the plaintiff's streetcar claims, Swensek was tickled. "To say that monuments to white supremacy are part of the citywide streetcar line is laughable I think."
Before the hearing, an armed U.S. Marshall told those present that speaking out or starting trouble would warrant removal from the courtroom and could result in sanctions. The courtroom was locked during proceedings to prevent outside disturbances; Entry into the courtroom required passing through two separate metal detectors.
Proceedings lasted two hours. Barbier said a written ruling is forthcoming, but didn't mention when it would be announced.
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