Judge: Tarps must be removed

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A Charlottesville judge has ruled the tarps covering the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues in downtown Charlottesville must be removed.

The decision came during a Tuesday motions hearing in which the judge also ruled that the lawsuit to keep the statues in place can move forward.

"I think he made the right decision," said Ralph Main, attorney for a group of plaintiffs who filed suit last year after Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the Lee statue.

The statues have been covered in black plastic sheets since soon after the deadly Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally. They've been removed and replaced dozens of times as the battle over their fate wages in Charlottesville Circuit Court.

Last fall, attorneys for the city told the court the tarps were a symbol of public mourning for the Aug. 12 deaths of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and two Virginia State Police troopers.

At that time, Judge Richard Moore ruled that the tarps could stay up temporarily, but in his decision Tuesday, he said the Charlottesville City Council wouldn't say when that public mourning period would end.

"They never meant for the coverings to be temporary," Moore said.

The law regarding war memorials, he said, prohibits permanent obstruction, and the ongoing covering no longer qualified as temporary.

"I interpret the law," he said. "I don't make it up."

He gave the city 15 days from the date the order is entered to remove the tarps.

While the statues' opponents say they are a symbol of white supremacy that shouldn't be allowed in a public space, Moore said the tarps do interfere with the plaintiffs' and others' ability to enjoy them.

Main said many people are affected negatively by the tarps.

"As the judge indicated," he said, "tourists, townspeople, residents, historians. Anyone who wants to observe the monuments."

During the hearing, Moore also ruled against a motion by the city to dismiss the lawsuit. He said the plaintiffs have now provided enough information in an amended complaint to argue that the Robert E. Lee statue is a protected war memorial.

He ruled that the plaintiffs may not collect punitive damages from the city and also ruled that the city did have the right to rename Jackson Park, which is now called Justice Park.

Moore is weighing whether to remove individual city councilors as defendants in the suit and whether plaintiffs are entitled to compensatory damages.

Attorneys for the city declined to comment.

The trial will take place later in 2018 or early 2019.

The city released the following statement on the ruling:

From the beginning the City Council’s intention for the shrouds was to mourn the loss of life and the severe injuries that members of our community suffered on August 12th. In part, the judge's ruling is based upon his opinion that the shrouds were not temporary in nature.

The City is disappointed by the ruling but will respect the court’s decision. We are looking forward to the process of redesigning our downtown parks to promote a more complete history of our community.

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