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Judge Sides With Northam in Lee Monument Case, Appeal Expected

Ballerina in front of Lee monument
Protesters, and ballerinas like the one pictured here, flocked to the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue this summer. Pressure from protesters led to the state and city promising to remove the statues, something they've successfully done except with the Lee statue, which has been tied up in court after lawsuits seeking to block its removal. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A Richmond judge said Tuesday that Governor Ralph Northam has the right to take down the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue. But the residents who sued to keep the statue standing are expected to appeal in the next 30 days -- so it will stay up for now. 

Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant sided with the state, in large part because the General Assembly passed a budget amendmentduring the special legislative session that directs the Department of General Services to take it down.

And he referred back to court testimony from Kevin Gaines, a University of Virginia professor of Civil Rights and Social Justice that “the monument stands as a contradiction to present societal values”. 

“The judge agreed with our argument that the statue was raised against a backdrop of white supremacy and that any rule that required that it stay up was against public policy,” said Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who represented the state.  

At the crux of the lawsuit are two 19th-century deeds, gifting the statue to the Lee Monument Association and again to the state. But that gift came with terms -- the state had to protect and maintain the statue.

Judge Marchant noted in the ruling, however, that the Virginia Supreme Court has held that covenants written into deeds are unenforceable if they contradict public policy. 

Herring said the ruling means Virginia can tell its history in a way that is truthful and reflective of the state’s values moving forward. 

“People from 130 years ago, can’t put some flowery words in a deed and bind us to their view of what they want us to think about our past,” Herring said. 

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit also argue that if the Monument Avenue neighborhood lost its historic designation their property values would go down and they would lose some tax benefits. 

Governor Northam called for the statue’s removal in June, as racial justice protests rocked Richmond and the rest of the nation. 

“This victory moves Virginia forward in removing this relic of the past—one that was erected for all the wrong reasons,” Northam said in a statement. “I am grateful to Attorney General Mark Herring and his team for their tremendous work on this case. Today we are one step closer to a more inclusive, equitable, and honest Virginia.”


Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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