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Despite Ruling, Lee Monument’s Future Uncertain

A statue to Robert E. Lee, on Richmond's Monument Avenue, became a focal point for anti-racism protests over the summer. Activists, who demanded an array of criminal justice system reforms, also wanted Confederate statues removed. The state has been unable to move forward with plans to remove Lee due to lawsuits. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Legal analysts say it could be months before Virginia officials know whether they can take down the 130-year-old statue of Robert E. Lee on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

A Tuesday court decision cleared the way for the statue's removal. But before that can happen, the Monument Avenue residents who lodged the complaint to keep the monument erect have 30 days to file an appeal, something they are expected to do. The statue will stay put until the months-long legal battle is finally untangled. 

Attorney General Mark Herring said during the governor’s COVID-19 press briefing Wednesday that his office will see the fight through to the end.  

“I am incredibly proud of the work we have already done and will continue to do to ensure that this symbol of racism and white supremacy is removed once and for all,” he said.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said he thinks the Virginia Supreme Court will take up the appeal, but justices may not resolve the issue until the new year or later. 

“They could decide not to hear it, but I think it's of such substantial public importance that the Supreme Court justices will want to resolve the issue,” Tobias said. “I think one very compelling argument may be, and Judge Marchant mentioned this, the notion that the legislature, not judges, make public policy for the state. And the justices have said that over and over again, in many contexts, that judges should defer to the legislature and honor that intent insofar as it's clear.”

The Richmond Circuit Court judge who issued the ruling, Judge W. Reilly Marchant said in his opinion that the 19th-century deeds commanding the state to keep and maintain the statue are moot because they contradict present societal values and public policy.  

Other legal experts weighed in on the case. 

“I think the opinion is a pretty solid one,” said University of Virginia law professor Rich Schragger. “And I actually would expect, even if they accept the appeal and ruled on it, that the Virginia Supreme Court would uphold it.”

Schragger said the court doesn’t have to disclose why they reject an appeal, and justices may be inclined to go that route. 

“If the Supreme Court of Virginia wants to stay out of these monument cases, they have an opportunity to kind of avoid making broad statements about these cases,” he said. 

The Lee monument is now the only Confederate statue left on Monument Avenue. The others were pulled down by protesters or removed by the city.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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