The plaintiffs, a group of Richmond residents who live near the monument, filed suit after Northam ordered the removal of the statue in June amid the outcry and unrest caused by the death of George Floyd in police custody.
They argue that the Democratic governor does not have the authority to remove the statue erected in 1890 in this former capital of the Confederacy and that doing so would violate restrictive covenants in deeds that transferred the statue, its pedestal, and the land they sit on to the state.
The state has argued it cannot be forced in perpetuity to maintain a statue Attorney General Mark Herring has called a “divisive, antiquated relic.”
A spokeswoman for Herring, Charlotte Gomer, said she expects the judge may hear arguments on the motions both sides have filed seeking summary judgment at the start of the trial before moving on to witness testimony.
It was not immediately clear whether Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant might rule from the bench. In August, he took a week before issuing a ruling on the state's motion to dismiss the case.
But no matter Marchant's decision, the case could take more time to unwind — it is widely expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Monument Avenue, a prestigious residential boulevard that once contained one of the nation's most prominent tributes to the Confederacy, was dramatically transformed over the summer. The avenue's other large Confederate statues, which all sat on city property, were either toppled by protesters (in the case of Jefferson Davis ) or hauled off by contractors working for the city. Amid weeks of nightly protests, Mayor Levar Stoney ordered the statues removed, invoking his authority under a local emergency order.
The Lee statue, meanwhile, was transformed into a bustling hub of activity for demonstrators protesting police brutality and racism. The giant concrete pedestal of the statue is covered by colorful and constantly changing graffiti, many of the messages profanely denouncing police and others demanding an end to systemic racism and inequality.
A recent piece in The New York Times Style Magazine included the statue in its current state among a list of 25 of the “most influential works of American protest art since World War II.”
The 21-foot-high (6.4-meter-high) equestrian statue, which the state has said weighs about 12 tons (11 metric tonnes), sits atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall. Northam’s spokeswoman said Friday a decision has not yet been made about what will be done with the pedestal.