Supreme Court of Virginia hears challenges to removal of Richmond’s Robert E. Lee Monument

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After a lengthy legal process, the Supreme Court of Virginia heard arguments on Tuesday morning in two lawsuits that challenge Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to remove the Robert E. Lee statue that currently sits on Monument Avenue.

The 60-foot statue has been standing tall over the city for more than 130 years, however, city leaders are trying to change that.

The tipping point sparked last year in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Ten days after Floyd was killed by a police officer and protests sparked nationally, Northam announced his decision to remove the only state-owned Confederate monument.

“It does not reflect who we are as a Commonwealth,” Herring told WFXR’s sister station WRIC. “We are not the state we were 100 years ago. We are the Virginia today that believes in equality, justice and opportunity for all Virginians.”

However, the state’s decision to take down the Lee statue has been met with lawsuits.

Helen Marie Taylor, a long-time resident of Monument Avenue, and other property owners are fighting to keep the statue standing and filed a lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court. Taylor believes that an 1889 joint resolution of the Virginia General Assembly accepting the statue and agreeing to maintain it as a monument to Lee is binding on the Governor.

In another lawsuit, William Gregory, a descendant of the landowners, argues that the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” the statue.

On Tuesday, Patrick McSweeney, representing Taylor and the property owners, argued that Governor Northam does not have the authority to take down the statue. McSweeney asked the Supreme Court justices to reverse Northam’s order.

“The decision was based on an unconstitutional enactment of the General Assembly which had not yet been signed by the Governor,” McSweeney said. “The court also relied on, improperly relied on, testimony from experts about public policy.”

McSweeney then referenced Article 4 that states “the General Assembly shall not by special legislation grant relief”.

During a 2020 special legislative session, lawmakers passed an amendment to the state budget setting aside money for the statue’s removal and rescinded the 1889 resolution.

Toby J. Heytens, Virginia’s Solicitor General, alongside Attorney General Mark Herring were given time for rebuttal.

“I think it’s critically important not to lose sight of what issue is before the court this morning. This case is not about whether the people of 1890 had the power to put this statue up or about whether the people of 1890 to 2020 have the power to leave it,” Heytens said. “This case is about a handful of private individuals possess a judicially enforceable right to override the decision of the Commonwealth’s political branches and the will of many of their own neighbors to force the Commonwealth of today and tomorrow to continue to maintain this statue.”

Heytens goes on to say that the private property owners McSweeney represents are “opposed to the concept of representative democracy.” Before closing, Heytens told Justices that it’s been one year since the Governor ordered the statue’s removal and it’s been hung up on injunctions in court and that in every single case, the state has prevailed the challenges and won.

The next case heard was that of William C. Gregory, the great-grandson of two of the grantors of the Lee Circle. Gregory is represented by Joseph Blackburn who spent his allotted time trying to convince Justices that Gregory is the owner of an “easement in gross” in the Lee Circle, which is an interest in land.

“Since at least 1887 this court has recognized that an easement in gross is an interest in land and Mr. Gregory owns that interest in land because he either had got it through wills from his ancestors or through intestate succession,” Blackburn argued.

Heytens had the chance for rebuttal as well and argued that Gregory’s case does not hold up.

“No court has ever recognized a personal inheritable right to dictate the content of core government speech about a matter of racial equality and this court should not be the first one ever to do so,” Heytens argued.

The Deputy Clerk with the Supreme Court of Virginia said it could take weeks, even months, for a final decision to be reached by the seven Justices. Depending on the outcome, an appeal could be filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.

WRIC checked in with our legal analyst Russ Stone who says it is “extremely unlikely” the case will go to that level and the state’s Supreme Court ruling “should end” the long debate.

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