A Charlottesville judge on Wednesday revisited his ruling that two downtown statues of Confederate generals are war monuments. He also gave a loose timeline for the lengthy lawsuit over City Council’s votes to remove them.
Last week, Judge Richard E. Moore stated in a letter that the city’s statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are war memorials and therefore protected under state code.
“I find this conclusion inescapable,” he wrote. “It is the very reason the statues have been complained about from the beginning. It does no good pretending they are something other than what they actually are.”
The Monument Fund filed a lawsuit in March 2017, claiming the Charlottesville City Council in 2016 violated a state code section that bans the removal of war memorials when it voted to remove the statue of Lee. The suit was later amended to include the council’s Jackson vote.
Charlottesville City Councilors Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin and Mike Signer and former Councilor Kristin Szakos were all present in Charlottesville Circuit Court for the hearing Wednesday. Only former Councilor Bob Fenwick, who is being represented by different counsel, was absent.
On Wednesday, Moore expanded on the reasoning behind his recent order and clarified what he called “misconceptions” that the general public has reached.
While both the statues are clearly monuments and memorials to two Civil War veterans, as shown by their attire, Moore said, he clarified that only the Jackson statue could be taken definitively to be a monument to the Civil War, as well, pointing to the language on the statue, which lists three military engagements.
The Jackson statue was unveiled in 1921, and the Lee statue followed in 1924. Both were donated by philanthropist Paul Goodloe McIntire.
Because they are monuments to veterans and — perhaps in the case of Jackson — to the Civil War, as well, that brings them under the umbrella of the state code preventing the removal or encroachment of monuments to veterans and wars, Moore said.
“It has never been about whether I think they should be removed, whether the majority wants them removed or whether moving them would be helpful to certain parts of the population,” he said. “It’s about whether moving them would violate the state statute.”
However, due to several motions Moore has yet to rule on, there is still a chance he may rule that the City Council vote did not violate the statute protecting war monuments.
One such motion is from Lisa Robertson, chief deputy city attorney representing the city, the City Council and Fenwick, who argues that the city never accepted the 1997 state code change that may retroactively prevent the removal of war monuments and memorials.
Moore also denied a motion from the plaintiffs to prevent the defendants from using an equal protection defense based on the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In January, attorneys for the defendants argued that Lee and Jackson are well known for their roles in the Civil War, a war fought primarily over slavery. In addition, because of the placement of the statues in downtown Charlottesville, it could be argued that they are not war monuments and violate the 14th Amendment.
Because it is a constitutional issue, Moore said he was not comfortable ruling on the issue without hearing further evidence.
Also yet to be determined is whether the councilors have statutory immunity for their votes in 2016 and 2017 to remove the monuments.
Esha Mankodi — an attorney for the Jones Day firm, which is representing Bellamy, Galvin, Signer and Szakos pro bono — argued in January that because no funds were misappropriated and the councilors were not grossly negligent, per council meeting minutes and transcripts, they meet the standard for statutory immunity.
Since it is one of the most important motions remaining, Moore indicated he would likely rule on it in the “next few weeks.” The hope, he said, is to work his way through the remaining motions in a manner timely enough to maintain a September trial date.
However, as more motions continue to crop up and as his caseload grows, Moore said the date could be pushed back again.
S. Braxton Puryear, an attorney for the plaintiffs, took issue with a “lack of compliance” from the defendants with discovery. Puryear said the plaintiffs need further access to emails and texts between the councilors, which he said will be necessary to determine whether the councilors knowingly violated the law.
Mankodi countered that, based on submitted evidence, the councilors already met “scant care” requirements, which is all that is needed.
Moore said he sympathized with the defendants because the discovery requests have been put on pause for months while he ruled on related motions, but he said he would not require the defendants to expand discovery until after he rules on statutory immunity.
No additional hearings have been scheduled yet.