Virginia Supreme Court says Richmond Robert E. Lee statue can come down

The Virginia Supreme Court says that a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond can come down, clearing the way for its removal.

Ruling in two different cases, the court unanimously ruled that the state is not bound to prior agreements prohibiting the state from removing monuments from its property.

The legal battle over the statue on Monument Avenue began last year, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced that it would be taken down.

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The statue had long been a subject of controversy, but pressure to remove it ramped up after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police last year sparked a nationwide outcry over racial injustice.

A group of residents and a descendant of the family who granted Virginia the deed for the property sued the state about a month after Northam’s announcement.

Both complaints asserted that the governor had no authority to remove the statue because Virginia is restricted by language in the 1889 deed and measures passed by the state legislature that year over accepting the statue.

A judge ruled in the state's favor in October, but the statue remained as the plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court unanimously held that even if the agreements held restrictions, such requirements are “unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable because their effect is to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees.”

“Today is an historic day in Virginia. Today, we turn the page to a new chapter in our Commonwealth’s history — one of growth, openness, healing, and hope,” state Attorney General Mark Herring (D) said in a statement.

“As we continue our work to address systemic racism in our society, bringing this statue down will be an important step in the ongoing process of making Virginia a more open, welcoming, fair, and just place for everyone,” Herring continued.

The ruling on the statue comes two months after another Robert E. Lee statue was taken down in Charlottesville, Va., marking the end of another protracted legal battle. That statute was the sight of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally, where a counterprotester was killed.