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Northam administration faces lawsuits over Lee statue, executive orders

Mike Still • Jun 10, 2020 at 12:00 PM

RICHMOND — Two prominent features of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration in recent weeks — COVID-19 pandemic executive orders and removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee — are facing court challenges this week.

Richmond Circuit Court on Monday granted a temporary injunction until June 18 for dismantling the six-story statue at the head of Monument Avenue, five days after Northam publicly announced his order to do so under state law passed this year by the General Assembly. The injunction was requested by the great-grandson of two people who gave the land to the state in 1890, claiming that the deed requires the state to consider the statue’s site sacred and to guard it perpetually.

Governor’s Counsel Rita Davis, during Tuesday’s announcement of state plans to reopen schools in the fall, said the state expected the injunction and will contest it.

“Though the monument was cast in the image of Gen. Robert E. Lee,” Davis said, “the purpose of this monument was to recast Virginia’s history, to recast it to fit a narrative that minimizes a devastating evil perpetrated upon African Americans during the darkest part of our past.”

While state courts have recently notified the Northam administration of challenges to executive orders during the pandemic before handing down decisions, Davis said, Richmond Circuit Court gave no notice of the hearing until after granting the injunction. Such notification is not a requirement, she added.

“We expected (the injunction),” Davis said. “We look forward to litigating that action successfully as the days may come and any others.”

In a pair of unrelated court filings, state Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, filed emergency motions in state and federal court on Tuesday to declare unconstitutional Northam’s executive orders affecting businesses during the pandemic. Petersen filed the motions on behalf of a winery and wedding venue owner in Hamilton and a restaurant owner in Fredericksburg, claiming that Northam’s orders restricted certain types of businesses.

State Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, said he supported Petersen’s court filings, saying that “for nearly three months the Northam administration has picked winners and losers through government by executive order and press conference.”

“It’s time to come together and be the check and balance on executive power that the Constitution calls us to be,” Pillion said, not saying whether he was referring to the Virginia or U.S. constitutions or both.

Earlier during the pandemic, state courts found in favor of Northam’s emergency orders after legal challenges by two churches.

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