According to historians, the 7-0 decision relied on testimony that the statue was built in 1890 to commemorate the defense of an old South African life that had been dependent upon slavery and the subjugation Black people.
Its continued display, more than a century later "communicates principes that many believe are inconsistent with the values Commonwealth currently wishes to convey," the justices stated.
Two lawsuits were filed by Virginia residents to stop Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the bronze equestrian statue, which depicts Lee in military uniform atop a large stone pedestal.
Virginia had promised to preserve the statue in the 1887-1890 deeds which transferred it to the state. The justices ruled that this obligation is no longer applicable.
The justices wrote that "these restrictive covenants are not enforceable as contrary to the public policy and because they are unreasonable because their effect was to compel government speech by forcing the Commonwealth, in perpetuity to express, a message which it now disagrees with,"
Northam made his announcement in June 2020, ten days after George Floyd died under the knee of an officer in Minneapolis. This sparked protests in other cities over police brutality, racism, and police brutality, including Richmond. The nationally recognized statue became the epicenter of a protest movement in Virginia after Floyd's death and its base is now covered with graffiti.
Separate lawsuits were filed by a group of residents who own property near the statue and William Gregory, a descendant of signatories to the 1890 deed that transferred the statue, pedestal and land they sit on to the state.
Gregory claimed that the state had agreed to "faithfully guard" the statue and "affectionately safeguard" it. Five property owners also argued that the governor was bound by the 1889 Virginia General Assembly joint resolution that accepted the statue, and that agreed to keep it as a memorial to Lee.
Plaintiffs' attorneys told the justices during a June 8 hearing that the governor exceeded his authority under the Virginia Constitution. Attorney General Mark Herring countered that the governor cannot be forced to keep a monument that does not reflect its values by a small number of citizens.
High court sided with governor, citing historical testimony that the statue was erected to honor the Confederacy's "Lost Cause" and is widely considered a symbol for racial injustice.
"The essence and purpose of republican government is that sovereign people elect representatives who chart the public policy for the Commonwealth and the Nation. Democracy is dynamic by nature. Public policy and values change over time. Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn wrote that the Commonwealth Government is free to choose the views it supports and the values it wishes to express."
"For far too many years, the Lee statue stood tall and represented nothing but white supremacy and division -- but it is finally coming to an end," tweeted state Senator Louise Lucas, one the most powerful Black legislators in the state.
Patrick McSweeney was an attorney representing the residents. He declined to comment immediately and said in an email that his clients had to review the court rulings. He didn't say whether the residents are ring appealing to U.S. Supreme Court.
Joseph Blackburn Jr. Gregory's lawyer did not respond immediately to an email requesting comment.
Richard Schragger, a University of Virginia law professor who has been following the cases closely, said that "I believe this is the end of their line for the plaintiffs." He stated that the suit by property owners contains one contract claim under the U.S. Constitution, which could be used to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, he did not believe it would succeed and the Gregory plaintiff had no other options.
Northam's office stated in a press release that while the Department of General Services of the state had started work on security and logistical preparations for the statue’s removal, "no action is expected on the statue" until at least next Wednesday.
The state is working on detailed plans to remove the time capsule believed to be hidden within the base.
As it is transported to an unidentified storage location, the statue of 21 feet (6 meters) will be cut into pieces that fit under highway overpasses.
Northam's administration stated that it will seek public input regarding the future of the statue. The pedestal, measuring 40 feet (12 meters) in height, will remain in place while efforts are underway to redesign Richmond's Monument Avenue. Some advocates for racial justice see the pedestal in a symbolic way as a sign of the protest movement that erupted following Floyd's death and they don't want it removed.
The Lee statue was one of five Confederate monuments that were erected along the avenue at a time when Reconstruction and the Civil War were over but Jim Crow racial discrimination laws were still in force.
When the statue arrived in 1890 from France, where it was created, thousands of Virginians used wagons to help pull it in pieces for more than a mile to the place where it now stands. White residents celebrated the statue of the Civil War hero and native Virginian, but many Black residents have long seen it as a monument that glorifies slavery.
Since Floyd's death, more than a dozen pieces of Confederate statuery were removed from Richmond. This was Richmond, the capital of Confederacy during most of the Civil War.