Two bidders who sought Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee monument have filed a lawsuit, seeking to void a recent City Council vote that donated the statue to the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to be melted down and transformed into a new work of art.
The Charlottesville Circuit Court lawsuit comes just a week after the plaintiffs — Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation and the Ratcliffe Foundation, on behalf of its subsidiary Ellenbrook Museum — filed a bid protest letter Dec. 14. The foundations are represented by attorneys Ralph Main, Jock Yellott and S. Braxton Puryear, who also represented various Charlottesville area residents in a previous Monument Fund-backed lawsuit against the city over votes to remove the Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues.
In addition to the city of Charlottesville and City Council, the lawsuit also names the Jefferson School as a defendant. Much of the complaint focuses on an argument that, per the plaintiffs’ interpretation of state code, the city is not allowed to “destroy” or “alter” the monument.
“The Lee monument may end up necessarily altered, no longer the original historic work of art,” the complaint reads. “But it will not be destroyed.”
Also included in the lawsuit is a response letter from Charlottesville City Attorney Lisa Robertson, which reveals the city fully vested the statue to the Jefferson School prior to receiving the bid protest letter. Additionally, Robertson’s Dec. 17 response argues that, per state code, “the local governing body shall have sole authority to determine the final disposition,” of monuments.
While the bidders’ complaint does present several legal arguments against the city’s award, much of the complaint is devoted to the history of the Lee statue and an apparent attempt to argue that the recent push to remove Confederate monuments is only a trend spurred by changes in leadership and the Unite the Right rally.
“Before the August 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally roiled the City, a majority of locals (including a descendant of slaves) speaking before the Blue Ribbon Commission advocated keeping both the Lee and Jackson statues in their parks where they stood,” the complaint reads. “But afterwards, the winds of public opinion shifted like a weathervane, so did the City’s political leadership.”
The Lee statue and a 2017 City Council vote to remove it served as the ostensible reason for the deadly rally, which saw Charlottesville host hundreds of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who came to advocate for statue and engage in violence.
After the rally ended in the murder of Heather Heyer by James Alex Fields Jr., state law was changed in 2020 to allow localities to remove their war monuments. However, in an April 2021 decision, the Supreme Court of Virginia found that Charlottesville’s ability to remove the statue was never restricted by the prior law, clearing the path for the city to remove its Confederate statues, which it did in July.
The Lee statue has been in a city storage facility since its removal on July 10. The city called for proposals on what to do with the Lee statue in July and again in September. The Jefferson School submitted a proposal for the statue to be melted into ingots and transformed into a work of art that reflects the community’s values. The statue will then be given back to the city for public display. The process will include a comprehensive six-month community engagement process.
As in the bid protest letter, the complainants argue in their filing that the award to the Jefferson School was illegal and the award/voting process violated various state and local procedures. Additionally, the complaint argues that the city does not have the authority to destroy a statue, directly or indirectly, based on unsuccessful attempts in 2020 to amend the state code to allow localities to alter or destroy monuments. It remains unclear whether donating a monument to a group that wishes to destroy or alter it does indeed violate the updated state code or the city’s April state Supreme Court victory.
“[The] legislature’s careful choice of words to include or exclude indicates a legislative grant to localities of limited authority allowing them to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover war and veterans’ monuments — but not alter or destroy them,” the complainants argue. “If relocated the legislature limited the locality’s choices for disposition to placement at a museum, historical society, government or military battlefield.”
Though the City has not yet filed a response to the complaint, included with the plaintiffs’ filing is Robertson’s response to the bid complaint letter in which she specifically criticizes several of the arguments also used in the complaint. Namely, Robertson took issue with the argument centering on language which the General Assembly did not enact.
“Since the statutory language is unambiguous, no interpretation is required,” Robertson wrote. “Resort to the sort of extrinsic legislative history you cite in your correspondence, as opposed to the words of the statute as enacted, is inherently suspect, because Virginia does not keep an official legislative history.”
The complainants characterize Robertson’s letter as an assertion by the City that it is not governed by procurement procedures because the statue was a donation.
“The City response otherwise declined to address the protest,” the complaint reads. “In essence the City washed its hands of further responsibility for the Lee Monument and suggested the protestors ‘negotiate with’ the [Jefferson School],” the complaint reads.
Even if the plaintiffs’ are successful in their legal attempt, they may be too late to stop the Lee statue from being transformed. According to the complaint, after the unsuccessful bidders contacted the Jefferson School they were informed that the Lee monument had already been moved to a foundry and been “broken up, though apparently not yet melted down.”
“Without this court’s intervention the Lee monument, already altered and disfigured, is at risk of destruction,” the complaint reads.
Based on their interpretation of Freedom of Information Act law and the Virginia Procurement Act, the plaintiffs have also requested a temporary injunction preventing any more changes to the Lee statue. No hearings are currently scheduled in Charlottesville Circuit Court.