Lee statue

The statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville. 

A Charlottesville judge has ruled that two downtown statues depicting Confederate generals are war monuments and therefore are protected by state code.

Circuit Judge Richard E. Moore stated in a letter dated April 25 that the city’s statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are war memorials.

“I find this conclusion inescapable,” he wrote. “It is the very reason the statues have been complained about from the beginning. It does no good pretending they are something other than what they actually are.”

The Monument Fund filed suit in March 2017, claiming the Charlottesville City Council in 2016 violated a state code section that bans the removal of war memorials when it voted to remove the statue of Lee. The suit was later amended to also include the Jackson statue.

The defense recently has focused on the question of whether the statues constitute monuments. Recent motions by the defense have sought to have a jury make the determination.

If the statues were not found to be war monuments, an argument could be made that they are not protected by state law.

Moore said that although there has been little debate about whether the statues are war monuments, there has been lots of debate about their intention and placement.

“While some people obviously see Lee and Jackson as symbols of white supremacy, others see them as brilliant military tacticians or complex leaders in a difficult time (much like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, or even Oliver Cromwell or Dietrich Bonhoeffer), and do not think of white supremacy at all and certainly do not believe in, accept, or agree with such,” Moore wrote. “In either event, the statues to them under the undisputed facts of this case still are monuments and memorials to them, as veterans of the Civil War.”

The matter is so clear, Moore wrote, that he also wrote that if a jury were to find the statues not to be monuments or memorials to Civil War veterans, he would find the verdict “unreasonable” and contrary to the law.

Though Moore ruled that the statues are monuments, he said his ruling does not settle the case, and that several other motions must still be decided.

Those include the plaintiffs’ motion to exclude an Equal Protection defense; whether individual city councilors have statutory immunity; and for which issues the defendants are entitled to a jury trial.

The city councilors who voted for the removal of the statues could be liable for damages and legal fees if the court ultimately rules in favor of the plaintiffs, according to an opinion by Moore last June. However, a motion for reconsideration, which argues that the councilors have statutory immunity, has yet to be ruled on.

Four of the defendants — Councilors Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin and Mike Signer and former Councilor Kristin Szakos — are being defended pro bono by Jones Day, one of the largest law firms in the United States. The city of Charlottesville and former Councilor Bob Fenwick are being represented by Lisa Robertson, chief deputy city attorney.

Charles “Buddy” Weber, a plaintiff, said Moore’s ruling speaks for itself and declined to comment further. Attorneys for the defendants could not be reached by press time.

A hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday to give status updates and announce any new rulings.

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Tyler Hammel is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact him at (434) 978-7268, thammel@dailyprogress.com or @TylerHammelVA on Twitter.

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