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Supreme Court of Virginia hears appeals in Robert E. Lee statue case

Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 7:49 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Arguments over the future of the Robert E. Lee monument were heard Tuesday in Virginia’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The court is considering two lawsuits that challenge Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to remove the enormous bronze equestrian statue of Lee from a traffic circle on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

The appellate hearings come one year and four days after Northam made the televised announcement about plans to remove the now 131-year-old statue.

Oral arguments were heard virtually Tuesday morning. Two attorneys representing a handful of Monument Avenue residents urged the high court to reverse a decision made by a Richmond City Circuit Court judge in 2020.

Essentially, the issue boils down to the deeds written in 1887 and 1890 pertaining to the land and monument. Both attorneys stating those documents still stand true today.

Once descendent represented said the land was gifted to the Commonwealth by his family and therefore he still has ties to it.

“There’s a servitude upon this Lee Circle that came about with a solemn promise by the Governor in 1890 and Mr. Gregory just asks you to enforce that,” said Gregory’s attorney Joseph Blackburn, Jr.

The promise also said the land and monument would be held “perpetually sacred.”

“You cannot force the Commonwealth to maintain in perpetuity a statue that communicates a racist message,” said Virginia Attorney General (D) Mark Herring, following Tuesday’s hearing.

In 2020, the General Assembly held a special session, both chambers voting to void the agreements made in 1887 and 1890.

Attorneys for the Monument Ave. group argued the vote goes against the original agreement.

“It clearly ignored the Constitution violations when the General Assembly enacted the special legislation at the 2020 special session,” said Patrick McSweeney, an attorney for the plaintiff.

“It is up to the people, as spoken through their elected representatives, to decide whether this statue comes down, and it needs to come down,” Herring said.

Both appellate hearings totaled a little more than 30 minutes.

Herring said he felt confident in the arguments made about why the high court should not overturn the decision made last year.

“We have won every single challenge so far and even though we have won, there is still an injunction in place and that should be dissolved as quickly as possible,” he said.

Herring would like to see the court hand down a decision expeditiously, however, he added it could be several months before a decision is made.

Tuesday afternoon after the hearing, BLM RVA marched through the streets of Downtown Richmond in support of taking the statue down. The chant “Take him down,” could be heard as protestors say the Lee Statue represents systemic oppression and racism and needs to be taken down swiftly.

“We are asking today with this decision from the Supreme Court of Virginia - remove the hold so that this piece of idolatry comes down, and with it, the Confederacy. We are asking to topple the Confederacy once and for all today and forever,” said Lawrence with BLM RVA. “Let’s not take a long time, let’s not take a year, let’s do this swiftly.”

Speakers who spoke before the group march referenced how it has been documented that Robert E. Lee himself did not want a statue. They also spoke about how a descendant of Lee over the last year has spoken in support of the statue coming down.

Corey Stuckey with the 381 Movement says keeping the statue up protects racism.

“Out of all the cries of Black Lives Matter, y’all are really going to leave that statue up? For what? I want to ask everyone in [The Supreme Court of Virginia] why are you leaving that statue up,” said Stuckey.

The group marched from The Supreme Court of Virginia to Main Street Station as they also spoke about the importance of the Black vote, as the Virginia primary took place.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.

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