Virginia Judge Blocks Effort to Take Down Confederate Statue

A monument to Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill, the last remaining such monument in the former capital of the Confederacy, will remain standing for the time being after a ruling by a Richmond, Va., judge. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Calling a Confederate general who led an uprising against the United States of America an “American war veteran,” a state judge blocked the removal of any war monuments in the state capital Thursday afternoon. 

Richmond City Circuit Court Judge Bradley B. Cavedo delivered his ruling from the bench during an emergency hearing. The fight started when an anonymous Virginian claimed the July 1 removal of Confederate statutes — ordered by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney under emergency powers — violated state law. 

Cavedo granted a similar request to block Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s attempt to remove of a Robert E. Lee Statue from state-owned land. 

Stoney argued the removal of the statues — about half a dozen so far — was needed to help protect the public. In the wake of mobs taking down statues nationwide, and one statue pull in Portsmouth, Virginia, that left a person injured, his lawyer Jeffrey Breit with the Richmond-based Breit Cantor Grana Buckner said emergency powers granted to him in the wake of weeks-long George Floyd-related protests gave him the authority to order the statues removed.

“When the governor declared an emergency [Stoney] was allowed to act,” Breit argued. “It’s not the court’s role to second guess what is and is not an emergency.”

Stoney ordered the removals July 1, in a surprise move to both Richmonders and the City Council.

But Cavedo, just like during the Lee monument hearing, seemed more interested in finding reasons to keep the monuments in place. 

“It’s because of the rioters,” the judge said, instead asking why Stoney didn’t use the police to protect the monuments. He pointed to two recent demonstrations against evictions — blocked until recently in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak — at the city’s courthouse which left two windows broken. 

He said the incidents showed the citizenry is to blame for violence, not the monuments.

“There was a public safety emergency at the John Marshall Courthouse,” he said of the building named for the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. “If we don’t have to change its name!” 

Robert M. Rolfe, a Richmond attorney with Hunton Andrews Kurth also defended Stoney’s actions. He said the anonymous nature of the plaintiff, and the lack of evidence offered in the complaint, further complicated their argument. 

“We don’t know who they are, how can they prove standing or overcome the burden needed in this extraordinary request for relief?” Rolfe asked.

But much like in the Lee monument case, where Cavedo said the statue “belonged to the people,” he said the anonymous plaintiff had standing simply because they are a Virginian. 

“The imminent harm is obvious,” Cavedo said, noting the already removed statutes negatively affected the nameless plaintiff enough to overcome the threshold.

“There’s reason to believe a Virginia law has been violated,” he added.  

James Thomas, a Bedford, Virginia-based attorney argued on behalf of the plaintiff by phone. He said Stoney’s surprise statute removal ran afoul of a recently changed state law, it was invariably the judge who most often argued on his behalf. 

Cavedo made headlines for granting, and then extending, a similar injunction last month. A hearing in that case is expected in late July.

So far Stoney had removed statues of J.E.B Stewart, Stonewall Jackson and other Confederate leaders. While it’s hard to count the total number of Confederate monuments in Richmond, Gen. A.P. Hill’s monument — which stands atop his body in a busy intersection in the city’s Northside — is the final remaining statue of note.

Hill was a Confederate general under the better-known Jackson for three of the Civil War’s four-year run. 

In 1861, Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens delivered a speech defining the rationale for the Confederacy seceding from the United States.

“Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition,” Stephens said just weeks before the Civil War began. “This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

After the Confederacy was crushed, monuments to its existence were erected across the South in an effort to maintain the so-called “lost cause” narrative, which portrayed Confederates as heroically defending states’ rights instead of aiming to keep Black people enslaved.

The injunction keeps the statue in place for at least 60 days, despite a removal effort under the new law by the City Council expected by early August. Cavedo specifically denied Stoney’s request to lift the injunction even if the city votes to do so.

Another hearing is expected in the coming weeks.

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