The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue will continue to stand on the famous street after a Richmond judge declined Thursday to issue an immediate ruling in a legal challenge to Gov. Ralph Northam’s planned removal of the statue.
Judge W. Reilly Marchant chose not to rule from the bench in the closely watched case, saying he instead will issue a written opinion that he said will be issued “as soon as possible.” Marchant extended the temporary injunction blocking the state’s removal plans for 30 days, but emphasized that he plans to issue a ruling well before Aug. 23, possibly within a week.
“[The case] deserves a well-thought-out and well-reasoned opinion,” Marchant said from the bench after hearing arguments for more than an hour from the state and a lawyer for William Gregory, a descendant of the signatories of the 1890 deed that signed over to Virginia the land the statue stands on.
Attorney General Mark Herring is asking Marchant to dismiss the case and dissolve an existing injunction that a different Richmond Circuit Court judge granted twice before.
“The judge said that he wanted to give very careful consideration to all of the evidence and all of the arguments that were made,” Herring said after the hearing, “and I’m hopeful that as he does that, he will conclude that the governor has the authority to take the statue down. This monument is a divisive, antiquated relic and it needs to come down.”
Northam announced last month that he is directing the Department of General Services to remove the city’s most prominent Confederate symbol. It has been the center of Richmond’s activism during the months-long civil unrest spurred by the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police. While other Confederate statues on the city’s famed street have come down, the 130-year-old Lee memorial remains.
Thursday’s hearing was the first since Judge Bradley B. Cavedo, who previously presided over the Gregory case, extended the injunction indefinitely on June 18 while questioning Gregory’s standing in the case, a key issue in Thursday’s debate.
“It would be emotionally distressing to him to have the statue taken down,” Gregory’s lawyer, Joseph Blackburn Jr., said.
During testimony Thursday, Gregory said removing the statue would be a “slap in the face” to his family, while Herring said the statue does not represent the state.
“It was raised as part of a deliberate effort to intimidate and demean Black Virginians and it should come down as part of a deliberate effort to heal, reconcile, and grow,” the attorney general said.
While Gregory testified that he is not a part of any Civil War group, Military Order of the Stars and Bars, a fraternal organization for descendants of Confederate military and government leaders, filed a brief Thursday in support of Gregory’s case, saying Confederate memorials “are in great peril.”
Also at issue is the language of the 1890 deed. Gregory’s lawsuit argues that under the terms of the agreement and a legislature-approved resolution, the state is supposed to consider the monument and the area around it “perpetually sacred” and “faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”
“We’ve gone for 130 years with every government up until June 4, 2020, taking care of this monument and doing what the commonwealth promised to do,” Blackburn said, calling Northam “tyrannical” for trying to establish public policy.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, called Marchant’s decision to take the Gregory case under advisement and issue a written opinion “entirely appropriate.”
“There are many moving parts, especially the other related cases in state and federal court,” Tobias said, adding that the losing party will likely appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
The Gregory case is one of four challenging the Lee statue’s removal. A federal judge has yet to rule in a lawsuit filed by a Henrico County man. A Botetourt County man filed a suit Wednesday objecting to the removal, representing himself. That lawsuit is against Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who has no control over the fate of the Lee statue.
In the fourth case, five residents of the Monument Avenue Historic District say taking down the statue would decrease property values and hurt tax incentives. After a brief hearing Thursday, Marchant said he also would issue a written decision in that case.
“I need time on this as well,” he said.
The judge said he would try to make his ruling “very quickly.”