A judge in Virginia ruled this week that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) can take down a controversial statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that was erected in Richmond more than a century ago.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant handed down the ruling on Tuesday, marking a turning point in the months-long legal battle between the state and a group of local residents that began shortly after he ordered the statue’s removal earlier this year.
However, the judge has temporarily prohibited the statue’s removal pending appeal from the plaintiffs, who have up to a month to file a notice of appeal.
Northam praised the ruling in a statement on Tuesday afternoon and said the move was a “step closer to a more inclusive, equitable, and honest Virginia.”
“The Lee monument was built to celebrate the Confederacy and uphold white supremacy. This victory moves Virginia forward in removing this relic of the past—one that was erected for all the wrong reasons,” he said, while also thanking Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) and his team for “their tremendous work on this case.”
Northam pushed for the statue, which is located Richmond's Monument Avenue, to be removed in June as a number of cities across the country had begun taking down public symbols of the pro-slavery Confederate cause amid widespread protests against racism and police brutality following the police killing of George Floyd.
The statue’s removal was later approved by a Virginia state board, but the plan hit a roadblock after a group of residents sued to block the monument’s removal.
The residents argued at the time that the governor was overstepping his authority and that the statue, which was erected in 1890, was protected by covenants included in deeds for the monument that dated back to before the 20th century, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
A circuit court later imposed an injunction blocking the statue’s removal until a trial took place earlier this month.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Marchant wrote that the century-old covenants plaintiffs pointed to in the case no longer applied today, according to The Washington Post.
“The Virginia Supreme Court has long held that in order to enforce deed restrictive covenants, such enforcement must not be contrary to public policy, nor should conditions have so radically changed as to practically destroy the original purposes of the covenant,” he wrote.
He also reportedly pointed to testimony historians who acted as expert witnesses for Virginia gave during the trial in his ruling.
“Their testimony described a post-war South where the white citizenry wanted to impose and state unapologetically their continued belief in the validity and honor of their ‘Lost Cause,’ and thereby vindicate their way of life and their former Confederacy. It was out of this backdrop that the erection of the Lee Monument took place,” he continued.
A lawyer representing the plaintiffs, Patrick McSweeney, told the Post that they plan to appeal the ruling.
“Obviously we think he got it wrong,” McSweeney said in reference to Marchant.