Virginia Supreme Court paves way for removal of Robert E. Lee statue
Steve Helber/AP

Virginia Supreme Court paves way for removal of Robert E. Lee statue

Virginia is moving ahead with its plans to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from its capital city following a pair of rulings Thursday from the state’s Supreme Court.

The court is allowing the state to begin the “complex” multi-day process of taking down the 12-ton statue, which is the last Confederate statue on Richmond’s historic Monument Avenue and has been at the center of intense national debate.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s office said Thursday that “no action on the statue is expected this week,” citing “several logistical and security concerns,” as well as street closures.

Northam, a Democrat, had announced plans to remove the Lee statue back in June 2020, amid nationwide protests for racial justice, but was met with legal challenges.

A group of Richmond residents sued, arguing that an 1890 deed and a 1889 General Assembly joint resolution prohibits the governor from directing the removal of a state monument from state property. The plaintiffs also claimed property rights to enforce the deeds, saying it requires Virginia to perpetually keep the Lee statue in place.

In its opinion, Virginia Supreme Court disagreed, saying that all the plaintiffs’ claims were without merit and dissolved injunctions the lower court imposed.

Another lawsuit brought by Virginia resident William C. Gregory, identified as the great-grandson of two parties and signatories to the 1890 deed, argued that removal of the statue also violates the deed, in which Virginia, having been transferred the land the statue sits on, agreed to “faithfully guard and affectionately protect it.” He claimed that as an heir, he has the legal right to compel Virginia to keep the Lee Monument where it is.

The state’s high court, however, found that Gregory “has no property right, related to the Lee Monument, to enforce against the Commonwealth,” and agreed with the lower court that he “failed to articulate a legally viable cause of action” against Northam.

Removal of the statue had been in limbo until the Supreme Court’s rulings on Thursday.

Northam hailed the rulings and said pulling down the statue would help move the state and Richmond “into a more inclusive, just future.”

“Today it is clear—the largest Confederate monument in the South is coming down,” Northam said in a statement Thursday.

The Department of General Services, which was directed by Northam to take down the statue, said Thursday that it is “moving swiftly” following the court’s decision, but that it is an “extremely complex removal that requires coordination with multiple entities to ensure the safety of everyone involved.”

A date for the removal will be announced at a later time, the department added.

Northam had previously said that the statue, once removed, would be put in storage while the department works with the community “to determine its future.”

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