Confederate Monuments to Have their Day in Court
The court dispute over four New Orleans monuments honoring Civil War era figures will be heard by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 28. The court recently set the date in a case that pits City Hall against some preservationists and supporters of the monuments.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu urged removal of the monuments after police said a white supremacist killed nine parishioners inside the African-American Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., in June 2015, because a picture surfaced in which the killer was posing with a Confederate naval flag. The City Council voted for removal in December, leading to the court fight.
The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeal issued an order Friday morning (March 25) that prevents the city of New Orleans from taking down Confederate monuments while a lawsuit challenging its ability to do so makes its way through court.
U.S District Judge Carl Barbier had previously rejected a request to block city action while a federal lawsuit was being considered. The Monumental Task Committee, the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana and Beauregard Camp No. 130 maintain the city violated the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions when it declared three Confederate statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard were public nuisances.
The New Orleans City Council voted in December to remove the statues and the Battle of Liberty Place monument, capping a months-long campaign and public hearing process that Mayor Mitch Landrieu started as part of an effort to mend racial divisions in the city.
John Dunlap III, the attorney representing the Louisiana Landmarks Commission, said that while their main case must still be heard in Barbier’s court, the appellate panel’s decision Friday provides hope the plaintiffs will prevail. Barbier considered the merits of the case when denying an injunction to keep the monuments in place.
“Obviously, the 5th Circuit thinks there’s some merit to the arguments that the city’s failure to follow own ordinances violates the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions,” Dunlap said.
The 5th Circuit judges that considered the injunction appeal were Judges Edith Brown Clement, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Leslie Southwick, according to a two-page document filed Friday.
The plaintiffs didn’t earn a complete victory at the appellate level, as the panel denied a request to have their appeal expedited. This essentially keeps the case on the standard docket in Barbier’s court, meaning arguments and briefings could last for months, Dunlap said.
Pierre McGraw, president of the Monumental Task Force board, issued a statement Friday afternoon.
“We appreciate the unanimous decision of the panel of federal judges, which acknowledges that removing the monuments is premature. This action will allow for a full review of the constitutional and statutory issues at stake in this case,” he said.
There is a similar case in state court that is also awaiting appeal. Orleans Civil District Judge Piper Griffin ruled in February that the Monumental Task Force, volunteers who maintain and repair fixture displays around the city, can’t claim ownership of the monuments. Dunlap said that with signs pointing toward defeat before the state’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, his goal is to bring the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court where the issue of constitutionality can be determined.
Since gaining City Council approval, the Landrieu administration has been unable to hire a contractor to remove the monuments. The preferred contractor it first selected backed out of the job, citing threats he received. His high-end sports car would later be destroyed in a suspicious fire.
The mayor’s office then announced the project would be awarded through a public bidding process, but the city pulled a list of interested contractors from its website when those businesses began to receive threats. The deadline for obtaining more bids has been extended to April 22.
Sarah McLaughlin, the mayor’s communication director, said in an email “the city is evaluating the implications that this ruling may have on the bid process.”
Three statues honor Confederate commanders Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.