CHARLOTTESVILLE — A jury trial is no longer being sought to resolve a lawsuit filed over Charlottesville City Council votes to remove two Confederate statues downtown.
The Monument Fund filed the lawsuit in March 2017, claiming that in 2016 the city council violated a state code section that bans the removal of war memorials when it voted to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee. The suit was later amended to include the council’s vote on the Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson monument.
In a letter to both parties dated July 6, Judge Richard Moore wrote that he found the councilors are immune for their votes because they were not grossly negligent and did not make an unauthorized appropriation of funds.
Moore left the option open for the councilors to remain in the suit as parties, if they wished.
Current councilor defendants Wes Bellamy, Kathy Galvin and Mike Signer and former councilor defendants Bob Fenwick and Kristin Szakos all opted to withdraw from the suit at a hearing Wednesday in Charlottesville Circuit Court. The remaining parties — the city of Charlottesville and the city council as a body — have not requested a jury trial, meaning a bench trial is expected.
The individual councilors were being represented pro bono by Jones Day — one of the largest firms in the world — which has now also dropped from the lawsuit.
On Wednesday, Moore explained his immunity decision further, again comparing it to his decision on whether the statues were monuments.
In his earlier decision, Moore said it is “plainly obvious” the statues are monuments to Civil War veterans, likely bringing them under the protection of a state statute that prevents the removal of monuments to various U.S. wars and veterans. No evidence would change that, he said.
Similarly, Moore said there is evidence the councilors exercised scant care when researching the legality of their votes and, though perhaps negligent, were not grossly negligent.
“I saw a great similarity between the monuments summary judgment and immunity summary judgment,” Moore said. “I see them as two sides of the same coin or perhaps mirrored images.”
Though in most cases both issues would have been left for a jury to determine, Moore said he did not find that necessary in this case based on evidence and arguments already presented.
On behalf of the plaintiffs, Kevin Walsh, a professor of law at the University of Richmond, presented an argument against the defendants’ remaining equal protection defense.
The defendants have previously argued that the statues violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment by being racially intimidating in part because of their placement near a primarily black neighborhood during the Jim Crow era.
An equal protection defense would be more appropriate in a federal lawsuit, Walsh said, and found it “revealing” that the defense was not presented until the complaint was amended.
Another hearing is tentatively scheduled for 1 p.m. July 31.