Charlottesville judge hears arguments about councilors' immunity in statue lawsuit

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WCAV/WHSV) — At a hearing Monday in Charlottesville's ongoing Confederate monuments case, several remaining matters were discussed, including whether Charlottesville city councilors have immunity or could have to personally pay for damages.

Mike Signer, Wes Bellamy, Kristin Szakos, Kathy Galvin and Bob Fenwick are the current and former councilors named in the suit.

Last week, Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore ruled the downtown Confederate statues are war memorials, effectively protecting them from removal under Virginia law, but he has not issued a final ruling on whether the councilors have immunity in the case.

In court on Wednesday, the two sides argued over whether the councilors should have to give depositions and turn over internal documents like emails before the judge rules on the immunity issue.

Outside court, the spokesperson for the plaintiffs, attorney Charles “Buddy” Weber, explained why those depositions are important to his side.

"We have to prove that they were grossly negligent under the statute, and so in order to prove that, we need the facts," he said.

Attorneys for the defense declined to comment outside court, but during the hearing, they said the judge already has enough information, and the councilors shouldn't have to give depositions unless the judge rules that they don't have immunity.

Moore called the back-and-forth a "circular argument” and said he is leaning toward the plaintiffs’ side on the issue, but he also noted that the defense made arguments that could convince him otherwise.

He said he would make a decision on the issue in the next few weeks.

The plaintiffs, including the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups, argue that council members should have to pay for the tarps they ordered put over the statues following the violence of Aug. 12. They also say the defendants should be liable for the taxpayer cost of maintaining the tarps, and the attorney fees of those who brought the lawsuit to stop the removal of the statues.

Attorneys representing council members say the statues were not damaged by the tarps, and the tarps have since been removed. They also argue plaintiffs have not adequately explained what damages they are seeking, since the statues were never actually removed or damaged.

Also in court Wednesday was activist Ben Doherty, a member of the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).

Doherty says he understands the logic of Moore's ruling that the statues are war monuments, but he objects to some of the language Moore uses in a nine-page letter explaining his decision.

Moore wrote that some people see the statues as symbols of white supremacy while others "see them as brilliant military tacticians or complex leaders in a difficult time..."

"That's exactly what the Lost Cause mythology does,” Doherty said. “It forces us to neutralize what actually is overt white supremacy."

In his opinion, Moore says the statues' meaning to different individuals or groups is irrelevant when it comes to determining whether they fit the state’s legal definition of war monuments.

The lawsuit was filed after Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statue of Lee in early 2017.

A bill proposed in the General Assembly to allow localities to remove war monuments, effectively circumventing the current Virginia law, was voted down earlier this year.