Judge Starts New Injunction Barring Lee Statue Removal

Aug 3, 2020

Protesters gather around the Lee Monument earlier this summer.
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne/Radio IQ

The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond will stand awhile longer. A judge in Richmond has issued another injunction that prevents the state from removing the statue, while a case that argues the Governor is legally bound to leave the statue there forever, makes its way through the court. 

If it seems like déjà vu, that’s because it is. This is the second such case that’s prevented Governor Ralph Northam from immediately removing the Lee monument. Still, Monday’s rulings aren’t all bad news for state leaders who want the statue down. 

"This is going to take a lot longer than many folks would wish, and certainly longer than the Governor would wish."

  At the same time that Judge William Marchant issued the new injunction, he also ruled in favor of state officials in the initial lawsuit -- the case that’s responsible for the injunction that’s been in place up until this point.  

In a statement Governor Northam says he looks forward to more legal wins, insisting the statue will come down and that “Virginia will be the better for it.” He first announced his decision to take the state-owned statue down in early June. 


The Case Dismissed

The lawsuit that was dismissed Monday was brought by William Gregory, a man who says he’s a descendent of the donors’ who originally gave the statue, and land it stands on, to the state in the late 1800’s. 

Gregory claimed the language of that 130-year old deed bound the state to perpetually care for the statue, preventing its removal. But, citing arcane issues of property law, the judge dismissed his case Monday and dissolved the initial injunction. 

In addition to the argument based on the deed, Gregory also argued the Governor’s actions breaks a state law that outlines the process for removing public works of art or memorials. 

The judge also dismissed that argument because, he said, Gregory didn’t have standing to sue. 


The Case Still Standing

The second lawsuit is similar to the first, in that it rests on the state government’s action in the late 1800’s to accept the land and monument as a gift. 

But in this case the plaintiffs are not descendents of the deed’s signatories, they’re residents and property owners in the Monument Avenue Historic District. Rich Schragger, an expert in property and local government law at the University of Virginia, says their position as nearby property owners gives them a stronger case.  

“(The plaintiffs) are arguing that there was an agreement made when the statue was erected and that a condition of that agreement was that the statue remain in its place in perpetuity,” Scragger explained. “They are arguing that they are beneficiaries of that agreement, and that agreement should bind the Commonwealth and prevent them from removing the statue.” 

The judge hasn’t heard the full case yet, but he writes that there’s enough evidence to support their case that he’s issuing a preliminary injunction.  That ties the state’s hands until a final ruling. 

In light of that decision, Schragger says there will still be a trial and likely an appeal that could take some time.

“At least as a legal matter this is going to take a lot longer than many folks would wish, and certainly longer than the Governor would wish,” he said.