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Removal of Charlottesville's Gen. Lee Statue Could Face Legal Issues

Posted: Updated: Feb 18, 2017 04:27 PM
Statue of General Robert Edward Lee in Charlottesville's Lee Park (FILE) Statue of General Robert Edward Lee in Charlottesville's Lee Park (FILE)
Tim Heaphy Tim Heaphy
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

The Charlottesville City Council is expected to vote to move the statue of Confederate Army General Robert E. Lee out of the downtown area, but there are still legal questions over whether moving it would be against the law.

Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy has been seeking the removal of the statue from Lee Park since March of 2016. Councilor Kristen Szakos also proposed removing Confederate monuments from Charlottesville back in 2012.

However, state law prohibits localities from removing memorials to war veterans, including Confederate Army soldiers. A judge ruled last year that the law only applies to monuments put up since 1998. The statue of Lee in Charlottesville was presented to the city in 1924.

Former United States Attorney Tim Heaphy says he won't take a position on whether or not the statue of Lee should be moved, but says it's clearly against the law as currently written.

“My guess is if the City Council decided to vote to move the statue, there would probably be an immediate temporary restraining order filed. And a judge would have to quickly determine whether that lawsuit has potential, if so it might freeze the action before the city's decision goes into effect,” Heaphy said.

Loudoun County faced a similar situation when a local NAACP branch wanted to remove a Confederate statue outside the county courthouse.

In that case the county interpreted the law to mean they could not remove the statue.

A case in Danville rested on the same state law, but in that case the judge ruled the memorial in question could be moved. However, this case involved a Confederate flag on a mansion, and not a public statue.

“That was a pretty different set of facts. That was a flag on top of a house, this is a statue is the middle of a park which seems pretty explicitly implicated by the [legal statute],” Heaphy said.

In a memo from Chief Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson to the Blue Ribbon Commission, she references both these cases, but says "Virginia law remains unsettled." The commission voted 6-3 in November 2016 to keep Charlottesville’s Confederate memorials in place.

Roberts writes that the city attorney’s office "regret{s}" that it is "unable to provide [City Council] more specific legal guidance."

Charlottesville City Councilor Bob Fenwick had previously abstained from voting on the issue, creating a split 2-2 vote, says he will now vote for the statue’s removal. Fenwick says City Council is aware of the legal challenges, but plans to ask the state attorney general for advice after the vote.

Councilors are expected to vote on the issue of the Robert E. Lee statue during its public meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, February 6.

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