RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — After announcing a 130-year-old monument to a Confederate general in Richmond “belongs to the people,” a Virginia judge on Thursday extended an injunction indefinitely blocking the governor’s effort to remove it.
Richmond City Circuit Court Judge Bradley B. Cavedo delivered his ruling from the bench Thursday morning at the John Marshall Courthouse after hearing arguments over a motion to dismiss against an alleged heir to a deed gifting the Robert E. Lee statue to the state more than a century ago.
Joseph E. Blackburn, with the Richmond-based firm Blackburn, Conte, Schilling & Click, argued on behalf of William Gregory, citing the 1889 deed along with an 1890 state law that he said “guaranteed” the commonwealth would take care of the statue in perpetuity.
“[Gregory is] the great grandson of the grant holder,” he said, calling it an act of privity in blood. “It’s part of his heritage.”
Blackburn said the 1890 act, passed by the Virginia General Assembly as a joint resolution authorizing the governor to receive the statue and land under it as a gift, formed a contract that the state is bound by.
“The commonwealth must honor its contracts like anyone else,” he said.
But Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens said the moment the case is not a matter of contract law, but rather property law, because it is based on a deed. To that end, he argued, the entire case is flawed because an injunction could not be granted under such a claim.
Heytens also argued the act of assembly did not prevent the statue’s removal because the state is protected from suit by sovereign immunity, a doctrine that says a state can only be sued for claims it allows it to be sued for.
There is no carve-out for such a suit in the act of assembly, he said.
Thursday’s hearing was part of a rushed process that started shortly after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced his intention to remove the monument. Cavedo granted an emergency injunction blocking the effort shortly after state agencies began the process of surveying the site.
"That statue has been there for a long time. It was wrong then, and it's wrong now. So we're taking it down," Northam said in a June 4 press conference
On the steps of the courthouse just after the hearing, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said the injunction was wrong and promised to continue to work to see the Lee statue removed.
“My focus is going to be on trying to make sure our ability to take this statue down is maintained,” he said.
Gregory is one of several aggrieved parties suing the governor over his removal plan, but a motion filed Wednesday in Richmond City Circuit Court seeks to have the parties consolidated into one suit.
Cavedo appeared open to the idea joining the suits, as well as using his authority to keep the statue up.
“My view is that the monument is the property of the people of the commonwealth and the governor is more of a custodian or fiduciary on their behalf,” he said in his closing remarks.
While the judge dismissed Gregory’s claim due to lack of standing, Cavedo offered him 21 days to refile an amended complaint. The statue, in the meantime, stays protected under the injunction. Cavedo said that just like every Virginian, the plaintiff is a “part owner of the monument.”
Outside the courthouse, James, a 68-year-old black man and nearly lifelong Richmond resident, disagreed with Cavedo’s assessment.
“It don’t belong to me, it doesn’t represent me,” he said, offering support for Northam’s removal effort. “It doesn’t represent black people, it only represents white people - it's not even all people.”
But James, who asked that his last name was not used, disagreed with some of the recent actions protesters have taken during the nearly 20 days of marches across the city. The Lee statue, and the three other monuments to Confederate leaders, are covered in spray-painted graffiti, something James said shouldn’t be happening.
“It needs to be removed,” he said. “Maybe put it in a grave site.”
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