In a lawsuit aimed at keeping the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Charlottesville, city councilors have been ordered to turn over documents related to conversations of removing them—a decision the council made, initially just to remove Lee, in a 3-2 vote in February 2017.
Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Rick Moore ordered June 19 that current councilors Wes Bellamy, Mike Signer and Kathy Galvin, and former councilors Bob Fenwick and Kristin Szakos, who were serving at the time of the vote, would have to supply documents dating back to September 2016.
Plaintiffs are asking for paper trails, including emails, text messages, phone calls, memos and videos from official city accounts and councilors’ private servers, and have specifically asked for those between the city leaders and members of activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and Showing Up For Racial Justice, according to acting city attorney Lisa Robertson.
“The plaintiffs are showing their hand,” she said. “It comes close to a witch hunt, your honor, and I don’t know any other word for it.”
Plaintiffs include 11 individuals, such as attorney Fred Payne, a city resident who “enjoys both Lee Park and Jackson Park and the monuments erected therein on a regular basis,” according to the lawsuit, and two groups: the Monument Fund and the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
The suit was filed in March 2017, before the spaces were renamed as Emancipation and Justice parks, respectively.
Robertson argued that the plaintiffs didn’t succinctly define the type of documents they’re seeking, and that the range of dates from which they want to collect evidence was too wide. (While the judge ruled that councilors would need to sort through materials dating back to September 2016, plaintiffs had originally asked for that through January 2016.)
Plaintiffs attorney Ralph Main didn’t deny that the scope of evidence was large.
“We wanted to find out if there was something going on ahead of time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a fishing expedition.”
Robertson called the plaintiffs’ request “painful” and asked the judge if he had any idea of the sheer volume of emails councilors received from people all over the nation in the wake of their decision to remove Lee and Jackson. And Moore said, yes, because of the national movement to contact city clerk Llezelle Dugger, and tell her how he should rule. Through her, Moore said he received “thousands” of messages.
He then ruled that councilors would not need to turn over messages they received, and only the ones they sent.
Last week, he ruled that councilors are not immune to legal fees or paying for damages related to their vote to remove the Confederate statues, and Robertson said it could be two more weeks before the city’s insurance company is able to determine who’s covered.
Individual councilors may have separate attorneys, and should not be compelled to turn over evidence until that’s sorted out, argued Robertson. But Main said deadlines are quickly approaching, and they’ve been parties in the suit since it was filed.