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Judge denies plaintiff's motion in Lee statue suit

The judge overseeing the case of Charlottesville’s former Robert E. Lee statue, the one that touched off a violent weekend nearly six years ago when white nationalists rallied for its preservation, has declined to let one of the two plaintiffs remain in the the case by changing its name.

The Ratcliffe Foundation of Tazewell County learned in April that because it had lost its state corporate status by failing to file an annual report from 2015 to 2021, it may no longer exist in a legal sense.

The group, which owns the ancestral home of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s family, responded by changing its name to Ratcliffe Foundation Inc.

“The court denies the Motion to Substitute Successor in Interest Ratcliffe Foundation Inc. for Ratcliffe Foundation,” wrote Judge Paul M. Peatross Jr. in a May 19 letter.

Some version of the Ratcliffe Foundation argued at a hearing last month that it shouldn’t lose its standing to sue the city over a local group’s plan to melt down the statue of the Confederate general. The defense countered that the group’s shoddy internal record-keeping jeopardized the existence of the Ratcliffe Foundation, and the judge did not disagree.

The larger-than-life bronze equestrian statue of Lee was removed from its downtown location in the summer of 2021 after at least five years of debate about the appropriateness of a monument to a slave-holding general whose military campaigns would have preserved the right to continue to hold people in bondage. The ruling was hailed as something of a victory for the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, which hopes to melt the statue down to create new art.

“The Court’s ruling will prevent that new corporation from joining the case as a plaintiff,” the Jefferson School wrote in a statement released Tuesday.

However, legal analyst David Heilberg cautioned that he wasn’t convinced that the latest ruling dealt a mortal blow to the litigation, which has already seen three trial dates come and go.

Heilberg said Virginia law allows a plaintiff to “nonsuit,” to dump its initial lawsuit when it hits a roadblock such as this one and then refile it. Therefore, the other plaintiff in the case, the Trevilian Station Battlefield Foundation of Louisa County, could conceivably fight alone.

“As long as they haven’t nonsuited before, they can drop the entire lawsuit, and bring it back within six months,” said Heilberg. “But they only get to do that once.”

Hanging in the balance is the so-called Swords Into Plowshares project, the Jefferson School’s plan to melt the Lee statue into ingots and then fashion a new, more community-centered monument for Charlottesville. The plaintiffs allege that they didn’t get a fair chance to obtain the statue and are seeking to undo the statue’s transfer to the Jefferson School.

Neither the Ratcliffe Foundation nor the Jefferson School’s attorney would comment directly to The Daily Progress on Tuesday.

At the last hearing for the statue case, the judge agreed to continue the case to an unspecified future date. The next meeting is a status hearing set for June 27.


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