Judge to hear arguments in Richmond Lee statue lawsuit

A judge on Tuesday will weigh whether to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to prevent Virginia's Democratic governor from removing one of the most prominent tributes to the Confederacy, a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee along Richmond’s famed Monument Avenue.

Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant will hear arguments on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which is being brought by a group of property owners along the prestigious residential street where the statue is located.

If Marchant does not toss the case, a trial is expected in October.

The statue, erected in 1890, is a one-of-a-kind piece by internationally renowned French sculptor Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercie and is considered a “masterpiece,” according to its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, where it has been listed since 2007.

It sits in the middle of a traffic circle, a grassy island of state-owned land.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced plans to take it down in June, citing the pain felt around the country over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer as he struggled to breathe.

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. But various legal challenges have so far prevented Northam's administration from removing Lee, whose imposing bronze likeness atop a horse rises 21 feet (6 meters) atop a granite pedestal nearly twice that high.

Northam's removal plans have been tied up in court since shortly after he made the announcement. A descendant of two people involved in the transfer of the land to the state in the late 19th century sued and obtained and quickly obtained an injunction.

Marchant eventually dismissed that case. But in a separate ruling the same day, he issued a new injunction in the property owners' lawsuit.