CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WCAV) — UPDATE (April 29):
Archive image of a February 2017 rally at the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville.
After years of legal battle over the Confederate statues in downtown Charlottesville, a huge decision has been made.
Charlottesville Circuit Judge Richard Moore ruled that the statues of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, in Emancipation and Justice Parks, are war monuments.
That means they're protected by Virginia state law, preventing them from being removed by the city, which initially voted to move the statues back in 2017.
That city decision was the spark that led to the "Unite the Right" rally held there in August 2017, which devolved into deadly violence and had very little to do with the statues in the end.
However, a state law makes it "unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with" any war monuments, but the city argued that state law applied only to war memorials built after the law was amended in 1998 (the statute was originally codified in the 1950s, after the statues were erected in the 1920s).
Judge Moore ruled months ago that the law applies to all war monuments, regardless of when they were erected, but said plaintiffs did not adequately prove that the Lee statue is a war monument. His latest decision settles that question.
In his nine-page ruling, Moore cites the fact that both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are depicted in their military uniforms and on horses associated with their time in the Civil War.
"I believe that defendants have confused or conflated 1) what the statues are with 2) the intentions or motivations of some involved in erecting them, or the impact that they might have on some people and how they might make some people feel,” Moore writes. “But that does not change what they are."
Moore finds the issue to be so clear-cut that "if the matter went to trial on this issue and a jury were to decide that they are not monuments or memorials to veterans of the Civil War, I would have to set such verdict aside as unreasonable..."
The city’s Chief Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robertson had argued that the city never approved the statues' installation as war monuments back in the 1920s when they were erected and therefore should not be subject to the law.
The lawsuit was filed after Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the statue of Lee in early 2017. City councilors Mike Signer, Kathy Galvin and Wes Bellamy are named individually for their roles in that vote, as are former councilors Bob Fenwick and Kristin Szakos.
Following the council decision, the nonprofit Monument Fund, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and other groups sued.
While legal analysts have said this ruling could sink the city's defense, Moore notes that this ruling doesn't guarantee the plaintiffs will prevail.
He still has several other motions under consideration.
Plaintiff spokesperson Buddy Weber says the plaintiffs are pleased, but also cited the remaining motions as questions that still need to be answered.
In an email, city spokesperson Brian Wheeler says the judge now has to decide whether the city has to pay damages and attorney fees and whether that question will go to trial in September.
In his ruling, Moore writes that he hopes to rule on remaining motions in the next month.
A hearing in the case is set for Wednesday.
A bill proposed in the General Assembly to allow localities to remove war monuments, effectively circumventing the current law on the books, was voted down earlier this year.
Arguments continued on Wednesday in a lawsuit seeking to prevent Charlottesville from removing two statues of Confederate leaders.
The suit names individual city council members as defendants, in addition to the city of Charlottesville and the city council as a whole. Both sides met outside of court in February seeking to reach a settlement, but that effort failed.
Judge Richard Moore considered several motions during Wednesday's hearing but made no final decisions.
Most of the discussion dealt with whether city council members could be held liable for damages if the lawsuit determines that their vote to remove the Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues violated state law.
The plaintiffs 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 said 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 said the statues were not damaged by the tarps, and the tarps have since been removed. They said plaintiffs have not adequately explained what damages they are seeking, since the statues were never actually removed or damaged.
Judge Moore said he agreed with the defense on that issue.
Attorneys also discussed whether council members showed gross negligence in their vote to remove the statues. Defense attorneys said that this lawsuit, despite two years of arguments, has still not resolved whether the vote was illegal, so council members could not be expected to know for sure in 2017 whether the vote was allowed.
They also argued that council members were simply making a vote and that they should be allowed to make decisions without fears of monetary damages.
Toward the end of the nearly four-hour hearing, attorneys from both sides started bickering about a lack of communication between both sides.
That prompted Judge Moore to say, "this case has gone on a long time and sometimes patience and tempers wear thin."
The trial is scheduled for September.