The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled Thursday that Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam can remove a massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee that became a focal point during racial justice protests last year in Richmond.
The high court agreed with a circuit court ruling that restrictive covenants in two transfer of ownership deeds from 1887 and 1890 do not bar the governor from taking down the 21-foot bronze statue depicting the Virginia-born military commander on a horse.
“Those restrictive covenants are unenforceable as contrary to public policy and for being unreasonable because their effect is to compel government speech, by forcing the Commonwealth to express, in perpetuity, a message with which it now disagrees,” the 26-page opinion states.
The dispute stems from a pair of lawsuits filed after Mr. Northam had ordered the statue to be removed in June 2020 amid nationwide protests spurred by George Floyd’s death last May. Floyd, a Black man, died in custody of the Minneapolis police.
Five nearby property owners claimed the statue was protected by an 1889 joint resolution of the Virginia General Assembly requiring then-Gov. Phillip W. McKinney to accept and maintain it. Meanwhile, a descendant of signatories of the 1890 deed argued that the commonwealth had agreed to protect it.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys argued to the Supreme Court that the governor lacks the authority to remove it, but state Attorney General Mark Herring’s office countered that they could not force officials to keep a statue that does not reflect the state’s current values.
Mr. Herring, also a Democrat, applauded the decision on Thursday.
“For too long we allowed our communities to be dominated by symbols of white supremacy and hate that did not represent who we had become as Virginians,” he said. “As we continue our work to address systemic racism in our society, bringing this statue down will be an important step in the ongoing process of making Virginia a more open, welcoming, fair and just place for everyone,” he said.
Thursday’s ruling dissolved an injunction that had prohibited removal of the monument throughout the legal proceedings.
Mr. Northam called the ruling “a tremendous win for the people of Virginia.”
“When we honor leaders who fought to preserve a system that enslaved human beings, we are honoring a lost cause that has burdened Virginia for too many years,” the governor said.
He said the commonwealth’s Department of General Services will begin planning removal of the 12-ton statue, which will be “complicated by several logistical and security concerns.” It will be a multiday process, he said, and no action is expected to be taken this week.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.
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