CHARLOTTESVILLE — A Charlottesville Circuit Court judge has ruled that two Confederate statues do not send a racially discriminatory message and issued a permanent injunction preventing their removal.
Spurred by a February 2017 Charlottesville City Council vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, various local residents filed a lawsuit against the city and the City Council. The lawsuit was later amended to add a vote to remove the statue of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Since then, the case has dragged through the Circuit Court for 2 ½ years.
The first day of the three-day trial started Wednesday with Judge Richard E. Moore issuing an oral ruling on a motion for summary judgment on the defense’s claim of equal protection. Presented formally this past spring, the defense argues that the statute preventing the removal of war monuments violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by sending a racist message to residents of color in Charlottesville.
Moore ruled against the defense and said that the statute has been amended several times since its 1904 introduction and is directed toward historical preservation, not sending a message of racial discrimination.
“I don’t think I can infer that a historical preservation statute was intended to be racist,” he said. “Certainly, [racism] was on their minds, but we should not judge the current law by that intent.”
Though the statues may represent a history that many do not like, they do not speak of hatred, he said, but people do.
Expanding his viewpoint, Moore said he also could not find that the statues denied equal access to any protected classes or stifled the voices of anyone in the community.
“I think the existence of these statues have given people a political voice they may not have had otherwise,” he said.
The equal protection defense was the last effort from the defendants to have the case dismissed.
Moore also granted a permanent injunction, preventing the removal, disturbance, violation or encroachment of the statues. The injunction had previously been temporary, issued soon after the lawsuit was filed in March 2017.
Wednesday marked the first day where many of the plaintiffs spoke about their motivations for the first time, expressing to the court their frustration with a political body they saw as ineffective. Of the 10 plaintiffs, eight testified to the emotional impact the votes and tarp shrouds had on them.
Each of the plaintiffs was seeking $500 in compensatory damages, and the plaintiffs’ attorneys were seeking about $600,000 in fees.
Fred Payne, the first named plaintiff, said he was shocked and angered when he first heard of the City Council’s vote to remove the Lee statue.
“I could not believe they would so obviously flout the law,” he said. “It was repeatedly obvious I was living under the regime of an unlawful City Council.”
Payne was further incensed when the City Council shrouded the statues with tarps following the murder of Heather Heyer and the deaths of two Virginia State Police officers after the white supremacist Unite the Right rally.
Describing the tarps as a “ridiculous charade of mourning,” Payne said their presence caused him emotional distress, a claim repeated by every plaintiff who testified Wednesday.
Jock Yellott, a plaintiff and head of the Monument Fund — the group that has financed much of the lawsuit — choked up as he talked about the tarps. As a resident of Charlottesville for more than three decades, he had come to love the statues, he said.
“I’m tearing up because it would just infuriate me that City Council would slander Lee and hide the beauty of those statues under tarps,” he said.
Yellott helped found the Monument Fund with the intention of protecting not only the statues of Lee and Jackson, but other war monuments, as well, citing the Vietnam memorial in McIntire Park in particular.
The only plaintiffs not attached to the Monument Fund are the Sons of Confederate Veterans and their heritage defense coordinator, Frank Ernest.
On Friday, the final day of the trial, Judge Moore ruled that no damages could be awarded under the statute.
“Whenever something of public value is hidden from view, that is a loss, and there are damages associated with that,” Moore said. “It may not be a tangible harm, but it is present, nonetheless. Certainly, the plaintiffs felt it.”
As he read it, the law allows only for damages to be awarded primarily to repair the statue. With no physical damage to them, he therefore could not award any, he said. Moore also will not award damages for the cost of the tarps used to cover the statues, ruling that doing so would essentially be charging taxpayers twice.
Though no damages were awarded, Moore said he will award attorneys fees. The exact amount has not been determined yet, with the judge opting to read some cases and weigh arguments before issuing his complete ruling.
In total, the plaintiffs are seeking $604,038.33 in legal costs, the bulk of which comes from the hourly rates of four attorneys and one paralegal who worked on the case.
Swayed in part by arguments from Robertson that various factors — including legal work for issues the plaintiffs did not prevail on — Moore said he will perhaps decide to lower the attorneys fees he awards.
However, Moore said he could not disregard the actions of the City Council when its members voted to remove the Lee statue in February 2017. In doing so, he said, the councilors violated the law by ignoring the state code, also ignored recommendations from the city attorneys and the Blue Ribbon Commission — a group tasked with determining what to do with the Confederate monuments.
“It appears the City Council just decided what they wanted to do and did it,” he said. “[The statute] was nothing new; they knew it existed and they proceeded anyway. That will flavor my decision on attorneys fees.”
Moore did not give a timeline for when he would determine how much he would award.