By Eric Hartley
A judge in Charlottesville ruled Wednesday that a state law protecting war memorials could apply retroactively to the city's statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.
But Judge Richard Moore said he wanted more proof that the statue qualifies as a war memorial, the newspaper reported. His decision clears the way for a lawsuit asking to bar the statue's removal, and the groups suing now have 21 days to present a stronger case.
Localities across the state, including Norfolk and Portsmouth, were watching the Charlottesville case as they wrestle with moving their own Confederate statues. Appeals courts will probably weigh in on the ruling.
Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander said Wednesday that the city will keep monitoring the case, which officials expect to go to the state Supreme Court.
In August, the Norfolk City Council voted unanimously to support moving a downtown Confederate monument to a city-owned cemetery "as soon as the governing state law clearly permits it."
That won't be clear until after the Supreme Court rules in the Charlottesville case, Alexander said.
A state law makes it illegal to "disturb or interfere with" a war monument. That includes removing statues. Violating that law can be a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the intent and the value of the damage, and can result in up to five years in prison.
The law was passed in 1904 but applied only to counties until 1997, when the General Assembly passed an amendment applying it to any "locality."
The question in the Charlottesville case is whether the law applies to monuments erected before 1997. Norfolk's dates to 1907, and Portsmouth's to 1893.
In 2015, a Danville Circuit Court judge ruled the ban does not apply to monuments erected in an independent city before 1997. The Supreme Court declined to overturn that ruling, and last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill aimed at making the law retroactive.
Norfolk's city attorney and a deputy commonwealth's attorney wrote opinions saying the law doesn't apply to Norfolk's monument because it was erected before 1997.
Portsmouth, meanwhile, is trying to get a judge's opinion on whether the city can move its Confederate statue away from Olde Towne. Mayor John Rowe said Wednesday afternoon that although City Attorney Solomon Ashby is following the Charlottesville case, the city will move ahead with plans to seek a declaratory judgment that Portsmouth owns the monument and that state law allows the city to move it.
The dispute over the statue sparked an August rally of white supremacists that became violent. Charlottesville has since covered the monument with a black shroud as a symbol of mourning for the woman who was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of protesters.
All but one council member voted last month to seek the judgment. Councilman Mark Whitaker, who has pushed to move the monument for years, said he dissented because the case could become bogged down in the courts.
Whitaker said on Wednesday that he's sure the city is legally able to move the monument. Portsmouth's attorneys agree, but they're asking a judge to decide in hopes of avoiding lawsuits.
(c)2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)