FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Virginia's highest court ruled Thursday that the city of Charlottesville can take down two statues of Confederate generals, including one of Robert E. Lee that became the focus of a violent white nationalist rally in 2017.
The state Supreme Court overturned a Circuit Court decision in favor of a group of residents who sued to block the city from taking down the Lee statue and a nearby monument to fellow Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Charlottesville's city council voted to remove both.
White supremacist and neo-Nazi organizers of the August 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville said they went to the city to defend the statue of Lee. They clashed with counterprotesters before a man plowed his car into a crowd of people, killing a woman.
The Jackson statue was erected in Jackson Park in 1921 and the Lee statue was erected in Lee Park in 1924. In 1918, the city had accepted a resident's offer to donate land for parks for both statutes.
City officials praised the ruling in a statement Thursday and said they plan to redesign the park spaces where the statues are located "in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville."
Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker thanked the community "for their steadfastness and perseverance over the past five years. For all of us, who were on the right side of history, Bravo!"
In Thursday's decision, State Supreme Court Justice Bernard Goodwyn said both statues were erected long before a 1997 state law that barred local governments from removing them.
He wrote that the law should not be applied retroactively; those seeking to keep the statues in place had argued the legislature's obvious intent was to do just that.
The 1997 law "did not provide the authority for the City to erect the Statues, and it does not prohibit the City from disturbing or interfering with them," Goodwyn wrote.
The state Supreme Court also ruled that the circuit court erred in ordering the city to pay $365,000 in plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs.
S. Braxton Puryear, one of the attorneys for the residents who sued, said he hadn't read the ruling yet and couldn't immediately comment on it. Frederick W. Payne, a Charlottesville lawyer who was listed as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, also declined comment Thursday.
The Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., and The Monument Fund, Inc., also were plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the city in March 2017.
University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger, who specializes in the intersection of constitutional law and local government law, said he took the position early in the litigation that the law didn't apply to the Charlottesville statues. He expects Thursday's decision to be the final word in the long-running case since he doesn't see any grounds for a challenge under federal law.
"It has just taken a very long time for this to be resolved," Schragger said. "I think the circuit court took probably too long to make make its rulings."
The 1997 law that barred local governments from removing Confederate statues was repealed in 2020, after Democrats gained control of the General Assembly in the 2019 elections. Since then, local governments across the state have removed statues that stood for a century or more.
In Richmond, city officials removed numerous statues on the city's famed Monument Avenue after they became a focal point of racial justice protests last summer. But a statue of Lee has not yet been removed; a lawsuit is now in front of the state Supreme Court to determine whether the statue, which sits on state property and is subject to an 1890 deed that purports to restrict its removal, can be taken down.
The 2020 law does impose some requirements on local governments seeking to remove a statue, like holding a public hearing and offering the statue to a museum or historical society for possible relocation. In Thursday's ruling, the judges indicate in a footnote that they are making their ruling based on the old law.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said he determined 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." Thursday's ruling "confirmed that we were right," Herring added in a statement.
"I have worked hard to help remove poisonous Confederate propaganda from our publicly-owned spaces, because I believe it glorifies a false history and sends a dangerous and divisive message about who and what we value," he said.
Kunzelman reported from College Park, Maryland.