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Several Groups File Briefs to Support Lee Statue Removal

Robert E. Lee statue behind fencing
Fencing was put up around the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond's Monument Avenue in January in preparation for its planned removal. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond residents who are for and against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue are gearing up for oral arguments at the Virginia Supreme Court as soon as this summer. Attorney General Mark Herring filed a brief Monday asking the court to dissolve a restraining order that’s preventing the state from taking down the monument.

Several amicus briefs were submitted today in support of Herring’s request, including from a group of more than 50 Monument Avenue residents, calling themselves Circle Neighbors, who want the statue to come down. The group represents the vast majority of owners of properties that face the Lee Monument.

Circle Neighbors said in its brief that the plaintiffs, Helen Marie Taylor and other Richmond residents holding up removal, lack standing to sue. Greg Werkheiser, with the law firm Cultural Heritage Partners, represents Circle Neighbors.

“Every historic preservation law in the country allows appropriate change. In this case, Heritage Preservation policy actually favors the removal of the monuments, because this monument, in particular, has become a public nuisance,” Werkheiser said.

At least eight additional parties filed amicus briefs in support of the governor’s right to take down the monument, including A.E. Dick Howard, a constitutional scholar who helped redraft Virginia’s constitution in 1968, and historians, students, and the Virginia NAACP.

Werkheiser said the neighborhood is no longer accessible only to white people like it was when it was first constructed, which speaks to the diversity of his clients. 

“We’ve got folks from all types of backgrounds who now live there,” Werkheiser said. “And the important part is, our neighbor’s group, the Circle Neighbors, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, they all have two things in common; they want the monument to come down and they want the neighborhood to be welcoming to all types of people in the future.”

The residents who filed the appeal to keep the statue standing are represented by Patrick McSweeney, who is a former chair of the Republican Party of Virginia. They say the lower court erred in its ruling and the state does not have the right to remove the 130-year-old monument.

McSweeney is filing a brief with the court asking it to deny Circle Neighbor’s amicus brief on the grounds that the group is so involved in the matter that it should be a party to the suit and therefore subject to discovery and participation in the proceedings.

“They claim to be in the same position as our clients,” McSweeney said.

McSweeney’s clients say they fear removing the statue will lead to the loss of the avenue’s National Historic Landmark designation and a reduction in property values.

Werkheiser pointed out, however, that sales in the neighborhood are up 6.7% after other Confederate monuments were removed last summer.

Following the Minneapolis Police Killing of George Floyd, protests erupted nationwide and in Richmond last spring. Activists vandalized the Lee Statue on Monument Avenue and called for its removal. Shortly after, when Governor Ralph Northam announced he planned to take it down, local residents and heirs to the family who donated the statue to the state filed lawsuits to block the action.

The Supreme Court may hear oral arguments in the case during its June session. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.