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Virginia Governor Can Remove Robert E. Lee Statue, but Not Yet, Judge Rules

A towering statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia’s capital that survived a summer of Confederate monument toppling can be removed, a state judge ruled on Tuesday.

The judge, W. Reilly Marchant of Richmond Circuit Court, affirmed orders issued in June by the state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, directing the removal of the 21-foot statue, which sits on a 40-foot base. But the judge stayed his decision, allowing the monument to remain in place pending an appeal from the plaintiffs who had challenged the governor’s order.

Patrick McSweeney, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, a group of residents who live near the statue’s Monument Avenue location, told Politico that his clients planned to appeal the decision.

Still, the decision was celebrated by officials in Virginia who have tried to remove the statue and other symbols linking the state to the Confederacy.

“The Lee statue has held a place of prominence and stood as a memorial to Virginia’s racist past in the center of our capital city for entirely too long,” Mark R. Herring, the Virginia attorney general, said in a statement.

“This decision puts Virginia one step closer on the path to finally bringing this divisive symbol down,” he said, “and I remain as dedicated as ever to ensuring that it is removed once and for all.”

In the weeks following the death of George Floyd after he was pinned to the ground by a white police officer’s knee in Minneapolis, protests across the nation against systemic racism and police violence against Black people focused attention on monuments to the Confederacy and other historical figures linked to slavery. Some monuments were pulled down by protesters. Others were ordered removed by local lawmakers.

In June, for example, protesters in Richmond toppled a statue of Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue. A month later, the city of Richmond removed three statues of Confederate figures along Monument Avenue. Also in that month, “a life-sized statue of Lee and seven busts depicting other ex-Confederates” were ordered removed from the State Capitol, Judge Marchant noted.

Mr. Northam stepped in with an order to remove the Lee statue but was challenged in court.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Marchant wrote that the governor had the power to essentially undo agreements linked to the statue, some dating to 1887. Those agreements were meant to guarantee that the statue of Lee would remain in a public space in the state.

One agreement in 1890 required the Commonwealth of Virginia to “guarantee that she will hold said Statue and Pedestal and Circle of ground perpetually sacred to the monumental purpose to which they have been devoted and that she will faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”

Judge Marchant wrote that he found the governor’s order “would no longer contravene public policy nor be in violation of the Virginia Constitution.”

In his ruling, the judge also cited testimony from two professors who described what had led to the installation of the statue. The testimony from Dr. Edward L. Ayers, a history professor at the University of Richmond, and Dr. Kevin K. Gaines, a professor of Africana studies and history at Cornell, “overwhelmingly established the need of the southern citizenry to establish a monument to their ‘Lost Cause,’ and to some degree their whole way of life, including slavery,” the judge wrote.

Concepción de León contributed reporting.

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