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SCOVA: Monument protection law never applied to Charlottesville Confederate statues

SCOVA: Monument protection law never applied to Charlottesville Confederate statues

Lee statue

Charlottesville’s statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is seen covered in red paint in June 2020.

THIS STORY WILL BE UPDATED. 

The Supreme Court on Thursday said a law preventing the removal of war monuments does not apply to Charlottesville's statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. 

The ruling was handed down in Charlottesville's appeal of a lower court ruling, with the state's highest court saying in part that a previous law preventing the removal of war monuments does not apply to statues built before 1997.

Released Thursday morning, the opinion signals the end of a years long legal battle to remove two Confederate statues in Downtown Charlottesville that in its wake saw a deadly rally, legislative change and the removal of dozens statues across the country.

The initial lawsuit was spurred by a Charlottesville City Council vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which later was expanded to include a separate statue of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Several area residents and The Monument Fund group sued the city and the City Council, alleging the votes violated a state code section that forbade localities from encroaching on war monuments and memorials.

The lawsuit went to trial in September 2019, with Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard E. Moore largely siding with the plaintiffs, ruling that the council votes violated the law. Moore issued a permanent injunction barring the city from removing the statues.

The lawsuit was subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which heard the case in November.

Meanwhile, a legislative change that allowed for localities to remove monuments to wars and veterans was passed during the 2020 General Assembly session and many statues across the Commonwealth were removed.

In its 12-page opinion, the Supreme Court of Virginia focused largely on an issue dismissed early on in circuit court that focuses on a 1997 update to the code section. This update modified language in the code to specifically prevent cities from removing war monuments, something that prior to the update had not been included.

Using a “plain language analysis” of the update, the Supreme Court wrote that the code section indicated that the language only applied to prospective statues erected after 1997. The Charlottesville Circuit Court erred in inferring intent from the General Assembly that was not evidenced by the words used, the ruling reads.

“The judiciary is not to substitute its own judgment in place of the General Assembly’s; rather than inferring the intent of legislation, our role is to ascertain the intent of the General Assembly as evidenced by the words used by it,” the opinion reads.

Both the Lee and Jackson statues were erected before there was a statue which authorized a city to erect war monuments and memorials or which regulated their disturbance or interference, the Supreme Court wrote.

“The Lee Statue and the Jackson Statue were not erected pursuant to Code § 15.2-1812 and so, the prohibitions against disturbing or interfering with monuments or memorials erected pursuant to Code § 15.2-1812 do not apply to the Statues,” the opinion reads. “In other words, Code § 15.2-1812 did not provide the authority for the City to erect the Statues, and it does not prohibit the City from disturbing or interfering with them.”

The Supreme Court acknowledged the case as an issue of first impression, and acknowledged “the thought and care with which the circuit court considered this matter,” before it wrote that the Charlottesville Circuit Court’s interpretation of the state code was “unpersuasive, and in contradiction of the actual words used in Code § 15.2-1812.”

Because the circuit court was found to be in error, the declaratory judgment order, injunction preventing the statues' removal, damages order, final order, and all relief granted to the plaintiffs -- including $364,989.60 -- by the circuit court was vacated.

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