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Virginia Supreme Court sides with Charlottesville over Confederate statues

Updated: Apr. 1, 2021 at 4:52 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Virginia’s Supreme Court has sided with Charlottesville in the case over the city’s two Confederate statues in public parks.

As the city prepares to move forward, those who have called to remove the statues for years are celebrating the verdict.

Elation and surprise – that’s the reaction from those who have been fighting to have the statues of Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson moved over the last five years. The court’s unanimous decision clears the way for the Civil War generals to be taken off their pedestals.

“When we’re talking about race reconciliation, when we’re talking about equity... this is a fight and a battle that you don’t win in a day, you don’t win in a week, you don’t win in a year,” former Charlottesville Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy said.

The state’s high court handed down it’s ruling nearly five months after it was argued before the bench. The court unanimously ruled in favor of Charlottesville’s argument that the city was never bound by the revised law preventing memorials from being altered, despite a 1997 update that explicitly forbade cities from doing so.

“The city was very fortunate to have Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson representing the interests of our community,” City Manager Chip Boyles said in a statement. “She has labored extensively over the past four years and I am thrilled she has won all of us this victory in the highest court in Virginia.”

Mayor Nikuyah Walker echoed those sentiments, and extended her congratulations to the activists who began the fight.

“The team in the City Attorney’s Office did an amazing job; this court decision will positively impact so many lives,” the mayor said. “I want to express gratitude to Zyahna Bryant, Dr. Wes Bellamy, and Kristin Szakos for igniting the sparks that started this local mini-revolution.”

Despite a 2017 vote to remove the statues, legal injunctions have prevented their removal until this point. The long-running legal battle thrust Charlottesville into the national spotlight and conflagrated in the 2017 Unite the Right rally.

“It’s been a long time coming to get us to this point, but it’s also bittersweet because of the tragedy and the trauma that we had been through,” community activist Don Gathers said.

Gathers chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces set up to examine the possibility of removing the statues in 2016. The commission ultimately recommended re-contextualizing them.

For Szakos, a former city councilor, the feeling goes beyond elation: since 2012, she’s been arguing the point that was ultimately argued before the court.

“I feel vindicated I feel like the city has been vindicated,” she said. “Our statues went up way before cities were covered by a law saying that you couldn’t remove statues built under the law. So, there was no reason why we shouldn’t be able to move them.”

With the fight in the court settled, the city can finally focus on what comes next. As the dust settles, that road forward is not immediately clear.

“Their intent is to remove the statues, ” Charlottesville Spokesperson Brian Wheeler said. “You know, as quickly as possible, but to make sure that we are following a process that’s going to keep us out of court in the future.”

The General Assembly laid the groundwork for localities to remove their statues in the 2020 session. That process includes a three-month waiting period to offer the statues to museums or battlefields that want them and periods for public comment. However, that revised statute may not even apply to Charlottesville, because of this ruling. The statues could come down quickly, according to University of Virginia Law School professor Richard Schragger.

“The logic of the opinion suggests they could possibly remove them immediately, without going through the the various processes that the revised statute provides,” Schragger explained.

The activists that fought for this day are clear: the process of taking them down, and what comes next, must be a community decision.

“We’re, you know, finally exorcising the “Lost Cause,” narrative here,” UVA Professor Jalane Schmidt said. “We’re still going to tell the story about this, we’re not going to, you know, quote, unquote, forget history.”

Legally, this is likely the end of the statues case, Schragger says. There’s no federal question to be resolved, and the U.S. Supreme Court would be unlikely to take it up.

The Monument Fund, which filed the original lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment.

04/01/2021 Release from the City of Charlottesville:

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - This morning, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the City of Charlottesville, and delivered an opinion upholding the legality of City Council’s 2017 resolutions announcing its intention to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from City parks. In the case of Payne v. Charlottesville, the Court unanimously found that the Charlottesville Circuit Court erred by prohibiting the disturbance of the statues and in ordering the City to pay the plaintiffs attorneys’ fees and costs totaling $365,680.60.

“This is an important case for the Charlottesville community and the rest of the Commonwealth,” said Charlottesville City Manager Chip Boyles. “The City was very fortunate to have Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson representing the interests of our community. She has labored extensively over the past four years and I am thrilled she has won all of us this victory in the highest court in Virginia.”

Lisa Robertson presented the City’s legal arguments to the Virginia Supreme Court on November 6, 2020.

“The team in the City Attorney’s office did an amazing job; this court decision will positively impact so many lives,” said Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker. “I want to express gratitude to Zyahna Bryant, Dr. Wes Bellamy, and Kristin Szakos for igniting the sparks that started this local mini-revolution. We are forever indebted to the community for their steadfastness and perseverance over the past five years. For all of us, who were on the right side of history, Bravo!”

In 2017, Charlottesville City Council adopted multiple resolutions announcing its intent for the statues to be removed from the City’s downtown parks, and asking the City Manager’s office to present options for how removal could be accomplished. City Council remains committed to the intentions stated in those resolutions and looks forward to working with the City Manager to accomplish its goals.

“I and my administration will work diligently to plan the next steps, in coordination with City Council,” added Boyles. “We also look forward to engaging our community in the redesign of these park spaces in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville.”

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