Two Richmond residents living near the site where a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee stood for more than a century have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling by the Supreme Court of Virginia that let state officials remove the towering monument.
In a petition filed with the high court Wednesday, lawyers for the landowners argued that former Gov. Ralph Northam did not have the authority to revoke an agreement to maintain the statue on state-owned land on Richmond's Monument Avenue.
Virginia promised to forever maintain the statue in 1887 and 1890 deeds transferring its state ownership. But the Supreme Court of Virginia sided with Northam last year, ruling that obligation no longer applied as “values change and public policy changes too” in a democracy.
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The statue was removed in September. In their petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, the residents argued that the decision by Virginia's Supreme Court has implications beyond just the Lee statue.
“The impact of the decision of the Supreme Court of Virginia affirming Governor Northam’s removal order will be widespread and significant,” attorney Patrick McSweeney wrote in the petition.
“If this Virginia decision is followed, every contract entered into by a state government can be abrogated when a governor or a court — not the legislature — decides that the contract violates public policy. This would leave those who contract with state governments at the mercy of judges and executive or administrative officials who have no legitimate role in setting the Commonwealth’s public policy,” the petition states.
Northam announced his decision to remove the statue in June 2020, 10 days after George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked protests over police brutality and racism in cities nationwide, including Richmond. The nationally recognized statue became the epicenter of a protest movement in Virginia after Floyd’s death.
The unanimous ruling by the Supreme Court of Virginia cited testimony from historians who said the enormous statue was erected in 1890 to honor the southern white citizenry’s defense of a pre-Civil War life that depended on slavery and the subjugation of Black people.
More than a century later, its continued display “communicates principles that many believe to be inconsistent with the values the Commonwealth currently wishes to express,” the justices said.
It was not clear when the U.S. Supreme Court would decide whether to hear the case.
Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy for most of the Civil War. The city has removed more than a dozen other pieces of Confederate statuary on city land since Floyd’s death, which prompted the removal of Confederate monuments in cities across the country.