RICHMOND, Va. – A lawsuit seeking to prevent Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration from removing an enormous statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee can proceed, a judge ruled Tuesday, clearing the way for a trial in the fall.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant rejected much of the state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by a group of property owners along the residential boulevard where the statue is situated. He did narrow the claims that can proceed, dismissing one count entirely and dismissing two plaintiffs from another claim.
The decision at least further delays Northam's plan, which he announced in early June, citing the pain felt across the country about the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer as he struggled to breathe.
The statue, which sits on a state-owned parcel of land along Richmond’s historic Monument Avenue, was unveiled before a massive crowd in May 1890, at a time when the Civil War and Reconstruction were over and Jim Crow racial segregation laws were on the rise.
Now cloaked in graffiti, it and other nearby monuments have become a rallying point during social justice protests and occasional clashes with police.
The plaintiffs argue that the governor does not have the authority to remove the statue and that doing so would violate restrictive covenants in deeds that transferred the statue, its pedestal and the land they sit on to the state.
A trial on the remaining claims is expected Oct. 19, according to Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring's office. Herring has vowed to continue the fight in court as long as it takes to see that the statue is removed.
“Attorney General Herring remains committed to ensuring this divisive and antiquated relic of a bygone era is removed as quickly as possible,” spokeswoman Charlotte Gomer said in an email.
Patrick McSweeney, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the judge's dismissal of one claim doesn't significantly impact his clients' case.
Alena Yarmosky, Northam's spokeswoman, said in a statement that the governor was confident in his authority to remove the statue “and he looks forward to winning in October.”
Kat McNeal, a member of the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality who has participated in the protests, said she is confident the statue will eventually be removed and is not especially concerned about how long it takes.
“It’s coming down, no matter what,” she said. “This has been a longstanding issue in Richmond, especially for the Black community. That statue is a slap in the face, it is a shrine to white supremacy, and it needs to come down and it will come down.”
The 21-foot-high (6.4-meter-high) equestrian statue, which the state has said weighs about 12 tons (11 metric tonnes), sits atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall.
Floyd’s death sparked a renewed wave of Confederate monument removals across the U.S., just like a violent 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville before it and a mass shooting at a historic African American church in South Carolina before that.
Critics of the statues say they distastefully glorify people who fought to preserve slavery in the South. Others say their removal amounts to erasing history.
Four other prominent statues of Confederate leaders have been taken down from city property along the avenue this summer.
AP writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this story.