General Lee wins first court skirmish

Sign-carrying protesters against white supremacy chanted outside Charlottesville Circuit Court.
Staff photo Sign-carrying protesters against white supremacy chanted outside Charlottesville Circuit Court. Staff photo

At the end of a six-hour hearing May 2, a judge enjoined the City of Charlottesville from removing its statue of General Robert E. Lee for the next six months.

More than 150 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the battle over Confederate monuments continues. Protesters in favor of ousting the statue chanted outside Charlottesville Circuit Court, and Judge Rick Moore reminded the dozens of attendees that despite “the heated feelings” in the matter that has roiled Charlottesville the past year, “That’s not the way it’s going to be in this courtroom.”

Plaintiffs filed the lawsuit and injunction March 20, following City Council’s 3-2 vote February 6 to remove the statue of Lee. Council voted April 17 to sell the statue.

The courtroom was full of people on both sides of the issue. Seven of the 13 plaintiffs were present, as were the three city councilors—Wes Bellamy, Kristin Szakos and Bob Fenwick—who voted to remove the statue.

The city was represented by City Attorney Craig Brown and Chief Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson. Its insurance company, Virginia Municipal League, said it would not be covering this particular litigation because council’s vote to remove Lee was a “willful violation” of state law.

The city argued that Virginia’s monument law enacted in 1997 was not retroactive and would not cover the Lee statue, which was donated by Paul Goodloe McIntire and dedicated in 1924.

When Moore asked if it was the city’s position that every Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and II and Korean War memorials were excluded from the statute, Robertson answered, “Yes.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys called more than a half dozen witnesses to demonstrate “irreparable harm” if the statue were removed, after Moore decided to proceed with the injunction motion and hear at a later date the city’s demurrer, which alleges some of the plaintiffs don’t have standing to sue the city.

Among the witnesses were attorney/plaintiff Fred Payne, who testified as an expert on Civil War uniforms because he “grew up with Confederate insignias since he was 10 years old.” When the city objected, Moore noted, “The standard for experts in Virginia is pretty low.” Payne pulled out a giant Official Military Atlas of the Civil War to show that the stars on Lee’s uniform on the statue were “clearly not” a U.S. colonel’s uniform.

Also called were Margaret O’Bryant, Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society librarian and member of the city’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces; City Manager Maurice Jones; and Friends of C’ville Monuments and nonprofit Monument Fund founder Jock Yellott, who testified that he was a plaintiff because the city’s “objective is to do some sort of desecration.”

After a 25-minute recess, Moore ruled to enjoin the city from removing the Lee statue for the next six months, but he did not agree to stop the city from renaming Lee and Jackson parks, nor from hiring a consultant to come up with a master plan for the parks.

The major issues for the plaintiffs, said their attorney, Ralph Main, was whether Moore would apply the provisions of state code and say the monument law applies. According to Main, in the judge’s opinion, “It was likely we would prevail on the merits.”

City Attorney Brown declined to comment on the decision. “We’re just going to move on to the next step,” he said.

A date to hear the city’s demurrer will be set June 19.

Civil rights icon Eugene Williams, 89, who sued to the city to allow desegregation, sat through the hearing and said, “I think that court decision is history-making.” He was there, he said, because he wanted to see the city stopped “from trying to destroy history.”