The jury is out: Judge agrees councilors have immunity in Confederate statue case

The Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues have remained at their respective locations throughout the trial. (Staff photo) The Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues have remained at their respective locations throughout the trial. (Staff photo)

Five current and former city councilors can breathe a little easier now that a judge has ruled they aren’t personally liable for their votes to remove two Confederate statues downtown.

Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore penned a letter to the opposing legal teams in Monument Fund v. Charlottesville on July 6, explaining that he determined the individual councilors have statutory immunity because they didn’t act with “gross negligence,” nor did they approve a misappropriation of funds. That gets current councilors Mike Signer, Wes Bellamy, and Kathy Galvin, as well as former officials Bob Fenwick and Kristin Szakos, off the hook for any personal liability in the case. It also means there’s no longer a need for a jury, and the two sides will proceed toward a bench trial tentatively scheduled for September.

The Monument Fund claims City Council violated state law when it voted to remove the Robert E. Lee statue in Market Street Park. It later amended the suit to include Council’s decision to take down the Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statue located three blocks away from Lee after the Unite the Right rally in August 2017. The case has moved slowly since it was initially filed in March 2017, and several motions are still under review.

One of those motions is the plaintiffs’ request for a summary judgment on the defense’s equal protection argument under the 14th Amendment. The Monument Fund did make its case before the court, represented by University of Richmond law professor Kevin Walsh. He told Moore that while the plaintiffs don’t dispute that many people are offended by the monuments, no one is personally being denied equal treatment by the statues’ presence as “there is no right not to be offended.”

Chief Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson filed a written statement to the court but her team won’t make its oral argument until the next hearing, which is slated for July 31. She declined to comment until then.

With a jury off the table, the plaintiffs also backed down on their request for a change of venue. Instead, they’ll seek a new facility for the proceedings, because the air conditioning unit in the court’s temporary building is too loud and must be shut off during the hearings, making the courtroom much hotter during the summer.

They previously argued that it’d be impossible to compile an unbiased jury in Charlottesville due to the defendants’ roles as elected officials—now a moot point—and “incessant news coverage,” including that of C-VILLE Weekly, which they allege “savaged” the plaintiffs, according to the motion to move the trial.

Plaintiff Edward Dickinson Tayloe II is also suing C-VILLE Weekly, along with news editor Lisa Provence and UVA assistant professor Jalane Schmidt, for defamation for statements in this feature story. He is seeking $1 million plus $350,000 for punitive damages.  A copy of that complaint is here: tayloe v. c-ville.

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