Virginia Supreme Court rules Robert E. Lee statue can come down, after a bitter battle

The Virginia Supreme Court has paved the way for the removal of a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, which Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam controversially ordered to be removed last year.

A group of residents and a descendant of signatories who granted the deed to the property where the statue lies had sued the state shortly after Northam’s June announcement in 2020, claiming it did not have the authority to actually remove the statue as they had agreed to maintain it forever in the original deed. 

After a ruling in the state’s favor in October, an appeal made its way to the Supreme Court, signifying a likely end to the bitter battle over the statue’s placement in Richmond that became especially heated after the governor’s announcement. 

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Workers remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Market Street Park July 10, 2021 in Charlottesville, Virginia. © AFP / WIN MCNAMEE
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The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that restrictions in the state’s original agreement are “unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable because their effect is to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees.”

According to the 7-0 decision, “values change and public policy changes too,” giving the state the right to remove the statue if they choose. Continued display of the Robert E. Lee statue and a commemoration of him in the form of a public memorial “communicates principles that many believe to be inconsistent with the values the Commonwealth currently wishes to express.”

The court’s decision was met with mixed reactions, with some praising the ruling and celebrating the “good news.”

Others argued the court had essentially allowed the state a way out of an agreement to earn a cultural victory.

Similar to arguments made against other statues and monuments commemorating Confederate military service members, Northam argued in his original announcement that the Robert E. Lee statue sends the wrong message to children and people visiting the state’s capital city. 

In a statement responding to the new court ruling, Northam called the imminent removal of the statue a “tremendous win for the people of Virginia.”

His original decision came days after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody. As footage of Floyd’s final moments kicked off a storm of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, some focused on public memorials to historical figures deemed racist by modern standards.

A statue of Robert E. Lee was also taken down in Charlottesville, Virginia two months ago. That statue stood at the site of the infamous ‘Unite the right’ protest in 2017 which led to one protester’s death.

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