RICHMOND, Va. — The Supreme Court of Virginia has cleared the way for the city of Charlottesville to take down the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that was the focus of 2017’s deadly Unite the Right rally, and the ruling appears to open the door for statue removals throughout the state.
The Charlottesville City Council voted to take down both the Lee and a nearby statue of Stonewall Jackson shortly after the rally in which white supremacists defended Confederate iconography, with one of them driving his car through a crowd of counterprotesters and killing a young woman.
But several residents sued to prevent the statues from coming down. They argued that a state law passed in 1997 prohibited localities from removing Confederate war memorials.
A circuit court judge agreed and placed an injunction against any removal, even ordering the city to pay court costs.
The city appealed, and on Thursday the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the 1997 state statute applies only to monuments erected after the law was adopted.
That law provides authority for localities to create war memorials and monuments, and the prohibition on taking them down “only applies to monuments and memorials erected prospectively under that statute’s grant of authority,” the court wrote.
“The statute has no language which imposes regulation upon the movement or covering of war monuments and memorials erected before [the law] was enacted,” the justices ruled.
The court found that Charlottesville is free to take down its statues, which were erected in the 1920s.
“It feels good,” said Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker, an independent, adding that “it provided some inspiration today to continue this work” of seeking social justice.
But the ruling does not heal the wounds of 2017 or make up for the deep racial inequities that remain in the United States, she said. “It’s just one small part of this major revolution the country is grappling with at this time.”
The news made a happy day for Zyahna Bryant, who led the first petition to remove the Lee statue five years ago, when she was in ninth grade. Now a second-year student at the University of Virginia, Bryant said the court’s ruling was a “full-circle” moment for her.
“I feel almost overwhelmed, because around this time in 2016 is when we were, like, pushing the petition and organizers were trying to get people to even have that conversation,” she said.
Bryant said she is looking ahead to not only rethinking the public spaces around the monuments but pushing the city to tackle problems of housing and education.
A city spokesman said there is no timetable for taking the statues down. Noting that no current City Council member was serving in 2017, spokesman Brian Wheeler said staffers will brief the council about options at a meeting Monday night.
“These are not small statues, and it’s a complicated process” to take them down, Wheeler said. The city wants to “make sure we do it in a way that doesn’t get us back in court in some fashion.”
Because the code section at issue in the case applies only to locally erected monuments, the ruling has no bearing on Gov. Ralph Northam’s effort to take down a giant statue of Lee on state property in Richmond, state officials said.
Northam, a Democrat, ordered the removal last spring, but the order has been held up by a lawsuit filed by several nearby property owners. A circuit judge ruled in Northam’s favor, but the case was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case but has not set a date.
Northam’s spokeswoman said he was “thrilled” by the court’s ruling.
“This is a tremendous win for Virginia, and especially for a community still healing from deadly white nationalist violence,” Alena Yarmosky said in a text message, adding, “Next up, the South’s largest Confederate statue.”
Steven Emmert, a Virginia Supreme Court analyst, said the ruling suggests that localities in the state had the power to take down their old statues all along.
“Most of the statues that were erected for Civil War leaders or veterans were put up in a period roughly between the 1880s and 1920s. What this means is that none of those monuments are governed by this statute,” Emmert said. “That means localities are free to consider whether they want to continue to display them. It means they can take them down if they want.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, has made the same argument, including in an opinion issued in 2017.
“I said nearly four years ago that the law purporting to block removal of Confederate statues did not apply retroactively and was not the blanket prohibition that its proponents had made it out to be, and today the Supreme Court of Virginia confirmed that we were right,” Herring said Thursday in a written statement.
The General Assembly passed a law last year that set up a mechanism for localities to take down statues using a lengthy public review process. Emmert said he was uncertain how Thursday’s ruling affects that law.
Amid last summer’s protests over racial inequity, triggered by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, one of the localities that used the new law to take down a monument was Albemarle County.
Supervisors voted to remove a statue of a Confederate soldier outside its courthouse, which is in downtown Charlottesville, a short distance from the Lee statue.