Hearing set in suit over Robert E. Lee statue removal plan

Attorneys will be back in court Thursday for a hearing in a lawsuit challenging Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's plan to remove a giant Confederate statue in Virginia's capital city.

State Attorney Gen. Mark Herring has asked the court to dissolve an existing injunction that has prevented the removal of the bronze equestrian statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Richmond's historic Monument Avenue.

The injunction was issued in a lawsuit filed by William C. Gregory, who is described in his complaint as the great-grandson of two signatories to a 1890 deed that transferred the statue, pedestal and ground they sit on to the state. His lawsuit argues the state agreed to “faithfully guard” and “affectionately protect” them.

Herring has argued in court papers that Northam has the clear authority to remove the statue and that Gregory is seeking to exercise “a heckler's veto.” His office is seeking to have Gregory's complaint tossed.

“The assertion at the heart of this case is staggering. Plaintiff insists that a single person — who claims, at most, an undefined fractional interest in property conveyed to the Commonwealth 130 years ago — may indefinitely veto a popularly elected Governor’s decision to relocate a massive, government-owned statue of Robert E. Lee from one area of Commonwealth ownership and control to another,” Herring wrote in a brief filed earlier this week.

Gregory claims in his lawsuit that his family has taken pride in the Lee monument and their role in it for 130 years. It alleges he would face “irreparable harm” if the statue were removed. He is seeking permanent relief from the court barring Northam’s administration from removing it.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Bradley Cavedo, who issued an initial injunction in June and later extended it, dismissed Gregory’s initial complaint but allowed him time to amend it, saying he wanted Gregory’s attorney to have “another shot” at addressing issues of legal standing.

A new judge, W. Reilly Marchant, will be presiding over Thursday's hearing.

Cavedo recused himself earlier this month, citing the location of his home in the vicinity of the Lee monument. He wrote that he was unaware at the outset of the case that he lived in the Monument Avenue Historic District, a 14-block area that contains the Lee statue and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark.

The 12-ton (11-metric-ton) Lee statue is about 21 feet (6.4 meters) tall and sits on a pedestal nearly twice that high in the grassy center of a large traffic circle. The statue 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.

The listing of the monument on state and federal historic registers recognized the statue as a “masterpiece” of French academic sculpture and “an icon for the cult of the ‘Lost Cause,'" according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

In explaining his decision to remove it, Northam cited the pain felt across the nation after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has since had numerous other Confederate statues removed from city-owned land.

The Lee monument, now cloaked in graffiti, has become a rallying point and community gathering spot amid social justice protests and occasional clashes with police since Floyd's death.

Northam’s administration has promised to move quickly to remove the statue, if the court clears the way.

The task will not be simple. A state board has approved a plan for removal that calls for cutting the statue into three sections for eventual reassembly elsewhere, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.