On Thursday, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned a lower Circuit Court decision that had previously barred the city of Charlottesville from removing its iconic statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson after the city council had voted to remove both.
The Charlottesville Circuit Court had ruled in favor of a group of Charlottesville residents who sued the city to block the removal of the statues, arguing that a 1997 law enacted by Virginia's General Assembly, referred to as Va. CODE § 15.2-1812, forbade the removal of such monuments. The Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Monument Fund were also listed as plaintiffs.
Said 1997 law was amended in 2020 after Democrats gained control of the state’s general assembly, leading to the removal of historical Confederate statues throughout Virginia.
While the law now permits the removal of “memorials for war veterans” a public hearing must be held at the local level, with the law stating: “Prior to removing, relocating, contextualizing, or covering any such publicly owned monument or memorial, the local governing body shall publish notice of such intent in a newspaper having general circulation in the locality. The notice shall specify the time and place of a public hearing at which interested persons may present their views, not less than 30 days after publication of the notice.”
In the Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion, Justice Bernard Goodwyn argued that the previous version of Va. Code § 15.2-1812 did not explicitly say that it was applicable to statues that were erected prior to its enactment.
“The statute has no language which imposes regulation upon the movement or covering of war monuments and memorials erected before Code § 15.2-1812 was enacted. The circuit court erred in failing to interpret the statute according to its plain language meaning,” the justice wrote.
“Va. Code § 15.2-1812 (1997, as amended) does not govern the City’s Statues, which were erected in the 1920s," he continued "And the trial court erred by interpreting the statute as operating retroactively to prohibit removal of the Statues from the City’s parks.”
Charlottesville became the focus of national media attention in August, 2017 when a “Unite the Right” rally, formed to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, resulted in an individual intentionally plowing his car into a group of counter protesters, killing one.