Having pursued the matter this far, Charlottesville City Council is justified in appealing to the Virginia Supreme Court a lower court decision that the city’s Confederate statues must stay.
That’s not only because the city needs greater closure on the statue controversy but because the issue is so much bigger than Charlottesville: The outcome could affect how other cities address similar controversies.
For anyone who doesn’t by now know the story: Charlottesville sought to remove monuments to Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
It first commissioned an advisory panel to investigate options, originally for the Lee statue only, but then ignored the panel’s recommendation either to keep the statue in place and provide better historic “contextualization” or to move it to a less prominent location.
Council chose out-and-out removal over either of those options.
That triggered a lawsuit in which plaintiffs argued that such a decision was illegal under a state law that protects all war memorials. After more than two years of legal maneuverings, motions and counter-motions from each side, a circuit judge ruled last month that the law did apply to the city statues: Removal was prohibited, and the statues must be protected.
Charlottesville had argued that the law was unconstitutional because it violated the 14th Amendment by sending a racist, discriminatory message to African American residents. The judge essentially said that the statues are depictions of history and that any meanings attached to them are in the eye of the beholder.
It might be tempting to suggest that the question is settled: Charlottesville should just accept the ruling and move on, allowing the community to put a divisive controversy behind it.
But emotions run so deep that such a simple result is not likely to occur. Closure — much less acceptance — is improbable.
That’s especially true since the circuit court is not the court of last resort. While an ability to push the case onward still exists, many city residents will expect City Council to take advantage of that ability.
Additionally, Charlottesville is not alone in wanting to ascertain the limits of the statues law. Other cities are keeping an eye on this case in order to determine what might be possible in their jurisdictions.
A ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court would help settle Charlottesville’s case while also providing a precedent statewide.
A Supreme Court ruling is not the only way to tackle the question, of course. The other is a legislative remedy.
If the General Assembly can pass a law protecting war memorials, and include Civil War statues in that protection, it can act to amend that law. That has been attempted, through an unsuccessful effort to change state law to give localities more control over memorials within their jurisdictions. But if the composition of the General Assembly markedly changes after next month’s election, similar legislative reform might be attempted next year.
The possibility of a legislative remedy doesn’t mean that Charlottesville shouldn’t also pursue a judicial remedy, however. Many residents expect the city to address the issue by any legal or legislative means available.
Until all means are exhausted, closure on this controversy — surely difficult even in a best-case scenario — is even more unlikely to be achieved.