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Deadline for Northam to sign statues bill looms

After years of political strife and legal contention, Charlottesville likely will soon be allowed to legally remove two Confederate monuments.

Looming over two parks in downtown Charlottesville, the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson have also loomed over the city’s political and legal news for the last four years.

A lawsuit, led by a group dubbed the Monument Fund, was filed soon after Charlottesville City Council’s Feb. 6, 2017, vote to remove the Lee statue. But the vote also spurred a deadly white supremacist rally that tried to unite various far-right factions on Aug. 12, 2017.

Though the city lost the lawsuit after a September 2019 bench trial, Gov. Ralph Northam is expected to soon sign legislation giving localities control over war monuments.

Northam has until 11:59 p.m. on April 11 to sign the bill. If he does not act on the bill, it will become law without his signature and go into effect on July 1.

However, delays to the 2020 legislative cycle caused by the global coronavirus pandemic may lengthen that process.

The legislation — which is a combination of various bills from legislators across the state — changes a section of the state code that prevents localities from removing monuments and memorials to wars and the veterans that fought in them.

Democratic proponents of the bill credit its passage to a shift in majority which saw the General Assembly turn majority Democrat for the first time in decades.

Nevertheless, the bill did not have a wholly smooth road to passage.

During subcommittee, the House of Delegates and state Senate approved different amendments to the bill, leading to some back-and-forth within the legislature last week.

The Senate’s amendments sought to require a waiting period before removal during which the Virginia Department of Historical Resources would conduct a review of the monument. However, advocates from Charlottesville, including Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, urged the Senate to reconsider, eventually agreeing to a version that did not include a report.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the localities that are looking to move these monuments and memorials have already undertaken their own significant historical reviews,” Hudson said in an interview with the Progress. “That was something we wanted to make clear during this amendment process and we’re happy with the softer requirements.”

The bill, if signed, will allow a locality to remove, relocate, contextualize or cover a war monument or memorial.

However, it also outlines a process which first requires the governing body to publish a notice of intent in a newspaper, followed by a public hearing within 30 days.

The locality may also choose to hold an advisory referendum, though the governing body is not held to the results.

Charles “Buddy” Weber, a spokesman for the Monument Fund, said he has no doubt the city council will seek to move the statues, but hopes they consider holding an advisory referendum before voting.

“At a public hearing in Charlottesville, a lot of people who want the monuments to stay would be unlikely to speak up out of fear of being jeered at or called racist,” Weber said. “An advisory referendum would provide a more true representation of how the community feels.”

Even if the City Council tries to remove the statues, Charlottesville will have another small hurdle to cross; during a trial last year a judge issued a permanent injunction of the Lee and Jackson statues’ removal.

According to Richard Schragger, a University of Virginia law professor who focuses on the intersection of constitutional law and local government law, the city will have to request that the circuit court judge remove the injunction before City Council can take any actions.

“I don’t foresee this being a difficult process, as this bill would resolve the legal issue that led to the lawsuit, but it would delay the city’s actions some,” Schragger said.

With court civil dockets likely to be crowded after coronavirus continuances are lifted, it is uncertain when the Charlottesville Circuit Court would be able to address the injunction.


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