Lee statue

The statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville. 

The defense of four Charlottesville City Councilors in a lawsuit over their vote to remove two Confederate statues could rely on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

On Wednesday, attorneys from the firm Jones Day, which is representing Charlottesville City Councilors Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin, Mike Signer and former Councilor Kristin Szakos, said the statues could reasonably be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate black residents.

The statues were erected during the time of racial segregation in a formerly black neighborhood, said attorney Parker Rider-Longmaid.

Wednesday was the third day of motions hearings in the case, which originally was slated for a trial beginning Monday. A new date for the trial has not been determined.

“This case has had more motions filed than any case I’ve seen before — both as a judge and an attorney,” Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard said on Monday.

The suit was first filed by the Monument Fund in March 2017, claiming the City Council acted illegally by voting to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in 2016. The move violated a state code section banning the removal of war monuments.

Following an August 2017 vote to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Court Square, the suit was amended to include both monuments.

Attorneys from Jones Day, the largest law firm in the U.S., filed a motion in December requesting a jury trial. Jones Day is representing Bellamy, Galvin, Signer and Szakos pro-bono.

Former councilor Bob Fenwick, the City of Charlottesville and the City Council as a body are being defended by Chief Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson. According to court documents, Robertson’s clients did not request a jury trial.

Lee and Jackson are well known for their role in the Civil War, Rider-Longmaid said, which was a war fought primarily over slavery. For that reason and because of the statues’ location, it could be argued that they are not war monuments and violate the Fourteenth Amendment, which says a state cannot deny any person equal protection under the law.

“We’re talking about what these statues mean to a reasonable and well-informed person in context of their placement and intention,” he said.

S. Braxton Puryear, an attorney for the plaintiffs, disagreed with the defense’s interpretation of the Equal Protection clause, claiming the defendants were “trying to rewrite history.”

“First you start tearing down statues, and then you start burning books,” Puryear said.

Moore expressed some disagreement with the defense’s argument, quoting a speech Abraham Lincoln gave at an 1858 debate where the former-president said he never intended to create social and political equality between black and white Americans.

The quote could be interpreted to show Lincoln was bigoted, Moore said, even though it was also a prevailing view of the time.

Moore did not rule on the Equal Protection clause defense Wednesday. He also has not yet ruled on whether a jury can be used to determine if the statues constitute war monuments and if the votes were “grossly negligent.”

In the three days of hearings, only one of the motions appears to have been ruled on: the defense’s motion that Moore reconsider his previous ruling on legislative immunity.

On Monday, Moore indicated he would likely stick with his June ruling that councilors could be held individually liable for their votes.

Until all the motions have been ruled on, Moore said, he does not believe a trial date should be set. A tentative date range of March 11-13 has been set aside for trial, but appears unlikely to happen.

Counsel will meet for a judicial settlement conference on March 11 with retired Judge Daniel R. Bouton. The meeting will be confidential and closed to the public.

Tyler Hammel is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7268, thammel@dailyprogress.com or @TylerHammelVA on Twitter.

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