Virginia Supreme Court Rules 60-Foot Robert E. Lee Statue Can be Removed from State Capitol Grounds

The statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va. (Credit…Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA, via Shutterstock)

Virginia’s Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously affirmed the power of Gov. Ralph Northam to remove an imposing statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, a symbol that had become a target of demonstrators after the death of George Floyd last year.

Mr. Northam had announced his intention to have the 60-foot statue removed from Monument Avenue in June 2020, less than two weeks after Mr. Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

Defenders of the 130-year-old monument challenged Mr. Northam in court, arguing that his order violated Virginia’s Constitution by encroaching on the legislature’s powers and that it defied agreements dating to the late 1880s that guaranteed the statue would remain in a public space.

One agreement, from 1890, required the Commonwealth of Virginia to “faithfully guard” the monument and “affectionately protect” it.

But the state Supreme Court, affirming a circuit court ruling, delivered two unanimous decisions in the governor’s favor on Thursday. Even if those agreements had created “restrictive covenants,” the justices wrote, they were “unenforceable” because their effect was “to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees.”

Mr. Northam, a Democrat, welcomed the outcome.

“Today’s ruling is a tremendous win for the people of Virginia,” he said in a statement. “Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value. When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a lost cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Vimal Patel

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