Judge finds Charlottesville councilors immune in statue lawsuit

Published: Jul. 10, 2019 at 4:51 PM EDT
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Current and former members of the Charlottesville City Council will not be held personally liable in the lawsuit over Confederate statues downtown.

Judge Richard Moore ruled the councilors have immunity in the case because they did not act with gross negligence when making the vote to remove the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

The plaintiffs were seeking damages from the councilors for what they called an illegal decision.

Councilor Wes Bellamy said he's pleased about the ruling, but the case has a long way to go.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint, whenever you're dealing with situations like this," said Bellamy. "Essentially, we're setting a precedent for the state of Virginia. Regardless of what happens when the local case is over, it will go to the state courts."

CBS19 News reached out to the plaintiff's attorney as well, but did not hear back. Plaintiffs include the nonprofit Monument Fund and Sons of Confederate Veterans, among other groups.

The ruling granting the councilors immunity leaves the City of Charlottesville as the sole defendant and removes the need for a jury trial in the case, but several other matters in it are still pending.

Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore must decide whether the city can defend the case based on the Equal Protection Clause.

At the hearing, the plaintiffs argued that the clause prohibits discriminatory government conduct and that the monuments simply existing in the downtown parks doesn't qualify as conduct. In other words, the plaintiffs said people don't have legal protection against being offended.

The city has filed a written response with the court on that subject and will make its oral argument later this month.

After the hearing, the plaintiffs' spokesman Charles “Buddy” Weber said his side knew holding councilors individually accountable for their vote would be difficult. He said it served a broader statewide purpose.

"It has alerted every city council, every board of supervisors and all the legislators in Richmond that there are exceptions to the legislative immunity statute, and they got to be careful about it," Weber said.

The next hearing in the case is set for July 31.

The trial is set to begin in September.

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