Legal front: Lawsuit filed to halt removal of General Lee statue

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Nearly a dozen citizens filed a not-unexpected lawsuit and an injunction today in Charlottesville Circuit Court to stop the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee and any further tampering with Lee and Jackson parks, both donated by Paul Goodloe McIntire. The plaintiffs include descendants from the park donor and the sculptor, as well as the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

After heated debates on Confederate monuments over the past year and the formation of a Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces to study the issue, City Council voted 3-2 February 6 to remove the Lee statue and rename Lee Park. At that meeting, councilors noted the likelihood of litigation.

And although Mayor Mike Signer and Councilor Kathy Galvin did not join fellow councilors Wes Bellamy, Bob Fenwick and Kristin Szakos in voting to dispatch General Lee, they are named in the suit, which asks for at least $500 in damages from each councilor and $100,000 apiece in punitive damages.

Except for two members of Sons of Confederate Veterans—Anthony M. Griffin and Britton Franklin Earnest from Smithfield and Virginia Beach, respectively—the other nine individual plaintiffs are local residents.

Another organization, The Monument Fund Inc., a nonprofit formed last fall, joined the Sons in the suit. The Monument Fund is aligned with a trust, Friends of C’ville Monuments, which can do the lobbying that the 501(3)(c) can’t, explains trustee Jock Yellott, who is also a plaintiff.

In addition, Yellott is executive director of The Monument Fund, which started raising money in October, “when it became clear there was a threat to the monuments,” he says. Yellott declines to say how much the nonprofit has raised—”That’s like telling the opposition how many cannonballs you have”—but says it’s fair to say the number of donors is in the hundreds.

Four of the plaintiffs—Fred Payne, Buddy Weber, Lloyd Smith and Yellott—are attorneys.

Several of the plaintiffs—Edward D. Tayloe II, Weber and Smith—are veterans and have “a special interest in the protection and preservation of war memorials and monuments located in the city,” according to the complaint.

Plaintiff Betty Jane Franklin Phillips is a “collateral descendant” of McIntire, which means she’s descended from his brother or sister. She represents the interests of the McIntire family, according to the suit. And the great-nephew of sculptor Henry Shrady, Albemarle resident Edward Bergen Fry, is also a plaintiff.

Other plaintiffs are Virginia Amiss and Stefanie Marshall, who is chairman of The Monument Fund and has “personally expended money and effort in cleaning and removing graffiti from the Lee monument in 2011 and in 2015,” according to the complaint.

What the plaintiffs have in common, besides their interests in Confederate monuments and history, is their interest in the law, says Weber. “I think everyone ought to be concerned about that, when elected officials don’t care about the law.”

The suit notes that monuments and memorials from “the War Between the States” are protected by Virginia code, which makes it unlawful to disturb or interfere with such. “There’s a monument protection law that says they can’t do what they did,” says Weber.

“Our first goal is to get an injunction,” says Weber, to stop any potential destruction while the case is being litigated.

Following its February 6 vote, council instructed city staff to come back in 60 days with a range of options for moving forward to eject the Lee statue and rename the park. At that meeting, Fenwick said he’d welcome a lawsuit because the state’s Confederate legacy is an issue facing localities throughout Virginia. “For the sake of the state, it should be litigated as soon as possible,” he said.

Signer declined to comment on pending litigation, and referred C-VILLE to City Attorney Craig Brown, who says he has not read the complaint.

Monument Fund v. City of Charlottesville-complaint-2017

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