Virginia Supreme Court Clears Path for Removal of Robert E. Lee Statue

Two unanimous rulings allow Gov. Ralph Northam to remove the statue from its prominent spot on Monument Avenue in Richmond.,

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Virginia’s Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously affirmed the power of Gov. Ralph Northam to remove an imposing statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, a symbol that had become a target of demonstrators after the death of George Floyd last year.

Mr. Northam had announced his intention to have the statue removed from Monument Avenue in June 2020, less than two weeks after Mr. Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

Defenders of the monument challenged Mr. Northam in court, arguing that his order violated Virginia’s Constitution by encroaching on the Legislature’s powers and that it defied agreements dating to the late 1880s that guaranteed the statue would remain in a public space.

But the state Supreme Court delivered two unanimous decisions in the governor’s favor on Thursday. Even if those agreements had created “restrictive covenants,” the justices wrote, they were “unenforceable” because their effect was “to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees.”

Mr. Northam, a Democrat, welcomed the outcome.

“Today’s ruling is a tremendous win for the people of Virginia,” he said in a statement. “Our public memorials are symbols of who we are and what we value. When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a lost cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years.”

He added, “Today it is clear: The largest Confederate monument in the South is coming down.”

In the weeks after Mr. Floyd’s death in May 2020, nationwide protests opposing systemic racism and police violence against Black people focused attention on monuments to the Confederacy and historical figures linked to slavery. Demonstrators pulled down some monuments. Local lawmakers ordered the removal of others.

In June 2020, for example, protesters in Richmond toppled a statue of Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue. A month later, the city of Richmond removed three statues of Confederate figures along the avenue. Also that July, “a life-sized statue of Lee and seven busts depicting other ex-Confederates” were ordered to be removed from the State Capitol.

On Thursday, Virginia officials said they had been waiting months for this moment. The rulings allow the Department of General Services to begin executing a plan to remove the statue.

“This process is complicated by several logistical and security concerns, including street closures and the equipment required to ensure the safe removal of the 12-ton statue,” a statement from Mr. Northam’s office said. “Ultimately removal of the statue will be a multi-day process; while crews are moving quickly, no action on the statue is expected this week.”

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