Virginia Supreme Court clears the way for Charlottesville to take down statue of Robert E. Lee

By Gregory S. Schneider, The Washington Post – 4/1/2021

RICHMOND — The Supreme Court of Virginia has cleared the way for the city of Charlottesville to take down the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that was the focus of 2017’s deadly Unite the Right rally, and the ruling appears to open the door for statue removals around the state.

The Charlottesville City Council voted to take down both the Lee and a nearby statue of Stonewall Jackson shortly after the rally in which white supremacists defended Confederate iconography, with one of them driving his car through a crowd of counterprotesters and killing a young woman.

But several local residents sued to prevent the statues from coming down. They argued that a state law passed in 1997 prohibited localities from removing Confederate war memorials.

A circuit court judge agreed and placed an injunction against any removal, even ordering the city to pay court costs.

The city appealed, and Thursday the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the 1997 state statute applies only to monuments erected after the law was adopted.

That law provides authority for localities to create war memorials and monuments, and the prohibition on taking them down “only applies to monuments and memorials erected prospectively under that statute’s grant of authority,” the court wrote.

“The statute has no language which imposes regulation upon the movement or covering of war monuments and memorials erected before [the law] was enacted,” the justices ruled.

The court found that Charlottesville is free to take down its statues, which were erected in the 1920s.

But L. Steven Emmert, a Virginia Supreme Court analyst, said the ruling appears to clear the way for such statues to come down statewide.

“Most of the statues that were erected for Civil War leaders or veterans were put up in a period roughly between the 1880s and 1920s. What this means is that none of those monuments are governed by this statute,” Emmert said. “That means localities are free to consider whether they want to continue to display them. It means they can take them down if they want.”

The General Assembly passed a law last year that set up a mechanism for localities to take down statues after a lengthy public review process. Emmert said he was uncertain how Thursday’s ruling affects that law.

Amid last summer’s protests over racial inequity, triggered by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, one of the localities that used the new law to take down a statue was Albemarle County.

Supervisors voted to remove a statue of a Confederate soldier outside its courthouse, which is in downtown Charlottesville, a short distance from the Lee statue.