Court Invalidates 131-Year-Old Restriction on Robert E. Lee Statue Deed, Argues Rule 'Unenforceable' Because State No Longer Agrees with It


The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that a long-standing statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond can be taken down in a decision that appears to ignore a sound legal argument in favor of public opinion, which makes a previous agreement “unenforceable.”

A legal dust-up over a 21-foot Lee statue of Monument Avenue in the city began in the summer of 2020 when Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam announced it would come down after George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis.

The statue was notably targeted by leftist protesters in 2018:

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Following the death of Floyd, and later nationwide protests and riots, Northam ordered the 134-year-old statue removed in June 2020 when it became a target for vandals and protests again.

“[The statue] was wrong then, and it’s wrong now,” Northam said at a news conference at the time, WRIC-TV reported. “So we’re taking it down.”

“I strongly believe we have to confront where we have been in order to shape where we are going,” the governor added. “Make no mistake, removing a symbol is important, but it’s only a step. It doesn’t mean problems are solved; there are still monuments of inequities that exist in our commonwealth.”

Northam faced opposition in court, so the removal was paused.

Those who sued to keep the statue of the famed Confederate general pointed out the state had previously agreed to maintain it.

One attorney who filed suit said the state had agreed in 1890 to take possession of the statue and “faithfully guard” it after a deed transfer made it public property, The Associated Press reported.

Attorney William Gregory said that Virginia agreed to “affectionately protect” the Lee statue. The state was in fact bound to the agreement by an 1889 joint resolution of the Virginia General Assembly.

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But in a unanimous ruling, the state’s high court this week said that due to sentiment held by the state, the prior agreement would be voided. The court sided with Northam and his allies 7-0 on the matter.

“Those restrictive covenants are unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable because their effect is to compel … the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees,” the court concluded.

Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn wrote an opinion for the court dashing the agreement between the state and the original deed-holder for the Lee statue.

“Democracy is inherently dynamic. Values change and public policy changes too. The Government of the Commonwealth is entitled to select the views that it supports and the values that it wants to express,” he wrote.

The AP reported that following the ruling, the Lee statue is expected to be cut into pieces and stored at an undisclosed location. The state will later ask for public input regarding the fate of the historic landmark.

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Johnathan Jones has worked as a reporter, an editor, and producer in radio, television and digital media.
Johnathan "Kipp" Jones has worked as an editor and producer in radio and television. He is a proud husband and father.