Given that I’m currently cooling my heels in Zuck jail for suggesting that there is no quantity of statues that exceeds the value of one human life, this ruling feels like a tiny bit of vindication.
NPR reports “The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled Thursday that the state can take down an enormous statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that has towered over a traffic island in Richmond for more than a century and has become a symbol of racial injustice.” This decision had been blocked by injunctions related to two court cases. Today, the state Supreme Court tossed both cases for lack of standing, lifting the injunction.
Individual rulings from the state court:
Gregory v. Northam—“The granting instruments relied upon by Gregory, the 1887 Deed and the 1890 Deed, do not plainly state an intent to create an easement in gross, and the circuit court did not err in concluding that they do not do so… Thus, Gregory has no property right, related to the Lee Monument, to enforce against the Commonwealth.”
Taylor v. Northam—“The Taylor Plaintiffs’ claims are based upon two premises… Second, that the Governor is constitutionally prohibited from ordering the removal of the Lee Monument from the Circle because a joint resolution passed by the General Assembly in 1889 states the Commonwealth’s current public policy and it strips the Governor of his authority to have the Lee Monument moved from the Circle. Rightfully, neither premise survived the circuit court’s scrutiny… We conclude that there is sufficient evidence to support the circuit court’s ruling that the purported restrictive covenants are unenforceable, even without considering the 2020 Budget Amendment, and that the terms of the 1889 Joint Resolution are not binding on the current Governor and did not strip the Governor of his authority to order the removal of the Lee Monument from the Circle.”
The tl;dr is that the ground was deeded to a private association to build the statue in 1887, and then donated the land to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1890 (because, obviously… Better to have state tax money pay for it than pay taxes to the state for maintaining the statue privately). The Court has correctly recognized that there is no takesies-backsies on that grant one-hundred-thirty years later when the state decides the circle would be better used for something other than a giant monument to the general who fought tooth-and-claw for the right of people to own other people. Nor can a resolution under which property was transferred to the Commonwealth 130 years ago constrain the actions of the Commonwealth with that property in the present. Furthermore, statues are speech, and a 130-year-old covenant cannot constrain the speech authority of the modern government.
This is, I think, one of the most interesting parts of these cases: that plaintiffs only recourse for any standing whatsoever is something the government said 130 years ago, when none of the plaintiffs were even alive. This is a situation where the oft-misquoted wisdom of Benjamin Franklin nearly applies: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary [free statue], deserve neither Liberty nor [a free statue].” The Court rightly recognizes that it isn’t even within the power of the state government to constrain its own freedom of expression in perpetuity; no government of the Commonwealth can guarantee that a future government of the Commonwealth won’t tear down any statue it owns.
We don’t build monuments for the dead. We build them for the living. This one has outlived its usefulness, and the state Court agrees.
I lost faith in the government process in Virginia decades ago and never expected to see this day. It feels good to be this wrong.