Monument motions: Another stall for the statues

Frank Earnest, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is the heritage defense coordinator of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Photo by Eze Amos Frank Earnest, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, is the heritage defense coordinator of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Photo by Eze Amos

It was the same old, same old in Charlottesville Circuit Court on March 13, when attorneys involved in a lawsuit to keep the town’s Confederate monuments in place hashed out all-too-familiar arguments.

It’s been two years since the Monument Fund and a dozen other plaintiffs filed suit in response to City Council’s vote to remove one of the town’s most controversial memorials, the General Robert E. Lee statue, and attorneys appeared frustrated by the lack of progress. This hearing followed an unsuccessful settlement conference between the parties in February.

A trial is scheduled for September 9.

“Still, to this day, we don’t know which damages they’re pursuing,” said defense attorney Parker Rider-Longmaid. He practices with Jones Day, the largest law firm in the country, which is representing councilors Wes Bellamy, Mike Signer, Kathy Galvin, and former councilor Kristin Szakos in the suit pro bono. Former councilor Bob Fenwick and the city are also defendants and are being represented by city attorney Lisa Robertson.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys Ralph Main and Braxton Puryear have continued to request money for damages, though the monuments depicting generals Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson have faced no physical damage, even while temporarily shrouded after the Unite the Right rally that left three people dead.

Judge Rick Moore said perhaps the money, if awarded for damages, could be used for preservation, which he called, “the only hook the plaintiffs have, in my opinion.”

It’s unclear how much the plaintiffs are asking for.

Puryear suggested damages could be awarded for attorneys’ fees or the $3,000 in taxpayer money that councilors used for the black tarps that covered the statues. But, said Rider-Longmaid, “We don’t think the plaintiff[s] should have another opportunity to cook something up” about how to collect damages. The judge did not make a ruling, but questioned whether a case could be made for the cost of covering the war generals.

Moore, who has previously ruled councilors are individually liable for their vote to remove the statues, also didn’t rule on whether they showed gross negligence when they did so. Defense attorney Esha Mankodi, also with Jones Day, said their opponents would need to prove the councilors exercised “scant care” to win that argument.

That wasn’t the case, she added, because the city officials deliberated for 10 months before taking their original vote, held approximately 20 public meetings, and sought a legal opinion from the city attorney.

But Main said that was something for a jury to decide, and the judge took it under advisement, though he hasn’t yet ruled on whether it will be a jury or a bench trial.

Plaintiff Frank Earnest, who holds the title of heritage defense coordinator within the Sons of Confederate Veterans, sat in the front row of the courtroom.

The 63-year-old Virginia Beach resident told C-VILLE last month that his organization has denounced racist groups over its 100-year history.

“We have nothing to do with those people,” he said. “We don’t want to see monuments to defending our state removed.”

Frank Earnest (center) and local attorney Jock Yellott (right) are plaintiffs in the suit to keep the city’s Confederate monuments in place. Photo by Eze Amos

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