Virginia Judge Grants New Injunction Against Removal of Confederate Statue

One injunction was replaced with another in the fight over Democratic leaders’ efforts to remove the controversial Confederate monuments.

A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is seen during protests in Richmond, Va., on June 2, 2020. (Courthouse News photo/Brad Kutner)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee will stay standing in Virginia’s capital for at least another 90 days thanks to a new injunction issued Monday morning by a state judge. 

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has tried to remove the massive bronze figure since mid-June after Black Lives Matter protests took over city streets, including the area around the state-owned monument. Northam, a Democrat, argued removal was needed to protect the citizenry and the statue itself, but William Gregory — a descendant of deed signatories who gifted the monument to the state over 130 years ago — won an injunction blocking the effort.

The first judge in the case, Bradley Cavedo, ended up recusing himself from the dispute after realizing, weeks into the case, that him living blocks away from the monument created a conflict of interest. But before his recusal, he blocked the statue’s removal for 30 days. 

Richmond City Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant is now overseeing the dispute. He dismissed the Gregory case Monday morning, but he also granted a new injunction blocking removal of the Lee statue in a case filed by landowners, led by Richmond woman Helen Mari Taylor and several anonymous plaintiffs who live near the statue. 

“Plaintiffs’ interest in their property values and the structuring of their neighborhood provide them direct and pecuniary interest in the outcome of this litigation separate from those of the general public,” Merchant wrote in a 14-page opinion, finding the landowners had standing to file their complaint.

The finding of standing in the Taylor case is of note because Marchant held it was lacking in the case brought by Gregory, who relied on a state law involving the governor’s authority to remove works of art. 

“The statute provides under what conditions a work of art may be accepted, removed, relocated or altered,” Marchant wrote, shutting down the Gregory dispute. “It is completely silent as to authorizing any public action.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, said he “remains committed to ensuring this divisive, antiquated relic is removed as soon as possible.”

In a text message, a Northam spokesperson said the governor appreciated the Gregory dismissal and looks forward to a second victory in the Taylor dispute. 

“This statue will come down – and Virginia will be better for it,” the spokesperson said.

Patrick McSweeny, the Powhatan-based attorney representing Taylor and the other landowners, declined to comment in a phone call.  

Monday’s pair of rulings follows a hearing last week in a similar case where an anonymous party is aiming to block the removal of other Confederate monuments in the city by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

Stoney has removed more than a dozen statues so far, claiming they became a flashpoint for protests that have taken over the city since early June, but he did so without the approval of the City Council as required under a recently passed law. 

Cavedo issued a 60-day order blocking the removal of any other city-owned monuments last month, but he recused himself from that case as well, and Marchant was again assigned in his place. 

The dispute has become more complicated, however, as lawyers for the mayor have appealed Cavedo’s rulings to the Virginia Supreme Court. Absent a ruling from the high court, Marchant was only able to hear an injunction request related to the 12 monuments that have already been removed and are currently being held at Richmond’s water filtration plant. 

Marchant granted the anonymous party’s request to ensure the statues’ security, but only to the extent that the city had already promised the location was certified safe by the Department of Homeland Security and under 24-hour surveillance. 

A second hearing has yet to be scheduled in the case against the mayor, but Marchant expressed doubt that his court — or even the high court — could have a role in the dispute. The Richmond City Council is expected to vote soon to remove the monuments under a new state law that empowers them to do so, which could moot the case entirely. 

“If we hear from the state supreme court before we meet again, that’ll solve that,” Marchant said from the bench in the last hearing. “I’m happy to [rule] quickly”

The ongoing battle over Confederate iconography had been brewing in Richmond and across the south for years, but more fuel was added to the fire after the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day. Two weeks ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted across party lines to remove such statues from Capitol grounds.

Supporters of the controversial statutes often claim they commemorate Confederate leaders and offer a link to their heritage. After the Confederacy was crushed in the Civil War, 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.

Another hearing for the Taylor case has not yet been set but is expected in the coming weeks.

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