The Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Charlottesville can remove two statues of Confederate generals, which civil rights activists say paid homage to America's history of slavery and racism.
The statues depict Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson and were the site of protests decrying police brutality and racism this summer.
The Robert E. Lee statue was also at the center of a violent white nationalist "Unite the Right" rally in 2017 that left one woman dead.
In Thursday's decision, State Supreme Court Justice Bernard Goodwyn said both statues were erected long before a 1997 state law barred local governments from removing monuments paying tribute to past wars.
He said the law only applies to monuments erected after 1997.
The law "did not provide the authority for the City to erect the Statues, and it does not prohibit the City from disturbing or interfering with them," Goodwyn wrote.
In 2017, the City Council of Charlottesville approved resolutions to remove the statues and locals filed a complaint, alleging the removal was illegal.
A circuit court had barred the removal of Confederate monuments, citing a 1997 Virginia law that prevented the toppling of statues and memorials.
The State Supreme Court also ruled that the circuit court erred in ordering the city to pay $365,000 in plaintiffs' attorney fees and costs.
In the decision, the court affirmed the 2017 opinion of Attorney General Mark Herring, who argued the law "does not apply to any monument or memorial erected on any property within an independent city prior to 1997."
"I have worked hard to help remove poisonous Confederate propaganda from our publicly-owned spaces, because I believe it glorifies a false history and sends a dangerous and divisive message about who and what we value," Herring said. "This work will continue, and I look forward to making our case for the removal of the state-owned Robert E. Lee statue before the Supreme Court of Virginia this summer."
The Charlottesville City Council praised the decision in a statement Thursday, saying it intends to redesign the parks "in a way that promotes healing and that tells a more complete history of Charlottesville."
"This is an important case for the Charlottesville community and the rest of the Commonwealth," said Charlottesville City Manager Chip Boyles. "The City was very fortunate to have Acting City Attorney Lisa Robertson representing the interests of our community. She has labored extensively over the past four years and I am thrilled she has won all of us this victory in the highest court in Virginia."
According to The Associated Press, the 1997 law that prevented local governments from removing Confederate statues was repealed in 2020 after Democrats gained control of the General Assembly.
Several other Virginia cities have made similar moves to remove Confederate statues. In Richmond, officials removed several controversial monuments on Monument Avenue. The site was a location for racial justice protests over the past year.