A visiting superior court judge is poised to decide whether to hold a trial to determine if Alamance County should have to relocate a Confederate monument from its long-time perch in front of the county’s historic courthouse or whether to dismiss the lawsuit outright..
Superior court judge Donald Bridges has indicated that a trial could begin as early as Wednesday in this closely-watched case, which the state’s chapter of the NAACP originally launched in March of 2021 in order to force the county’s hand regarding the 108-year-old memorial that stands on the north side of the county’s Historic Court House.
But before the litigants block off their schedules for a protracted court battle, Bridges must first rule on a request that the county has filed for a summary judgment – which, if it tips in the county’s favor, would effectively bring this case to a close without the need for a trial.
During a pre-trial hearing on Monday, Bridges declared that he’ll need a few hours to digest the arguments heard Monday both for, and against, the county’s request before he reveals his decision on this rather pivotal matter.
“I will return to this courtroom tomorrow (Tuesday, September 13) at noon, and I will announce my decision,” the judge said before he recessed the pre-trial hearing. “If I approve the defendant’s motion, there will be no trial. But if I deny the defendant’s motion, there will be a trial [barring an appeal from the county].”
The county’s request for a summary judgment was ultimately the focus of Monday’s three-hour hearing – whose setting inside the historic courthouse offered an intimate view of the very monument at the heart of this legal dispute.
Monument has stood since 1914
This granite pillar, which is capped by the stone likeness of Rebel in arms, has stood on the grounds of the courthouse since 1914, when the Daughters of the Confederacy donated this monument to Alamance County.
Meant, on its face, to honor area residents who fought for the Confederate States, this towering tribute has stood on the north side of the courthouse – first, beginning in 1914, at the entrance to the county’s original courthouse and, since 1923, in front of the current courthouse building.
Within the past decade, and particularly since the death of George Floyd in 2020, the monument’s meaning has spurred a swirl of controversy over the monument’s continued existence in front of the courthouse.
Charleston shootings, George Floyd death prompt protests against the monument
In 2015, the memorial’s location came under fire after a racially-motivated church shooting in Charleston brought renewed scrutiny to Confederate mementos across the U.S. This change in the national mood eventually prompted South Carolina to banish the Stars and Bars from the grounds of its state capitol. It also inspired protesters in some North Carolina cities to demolish Confederate statues without waiting for the imprimatur of their elected leaders.
This urge to sweep away the past had a contrary effect on North Carolina’s General Assembly, whose Republican-led majority pushed through the so-called Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act, which forbids the removal of Confederate monuments and other “objects of remembrance” from public spaces. Under this law, even elected bodies are prohibited to tinker with protected objects – except under some fairly limited exceptions, such as structural degradation and other potential public hazards.
Even before the passage of this state legislation, Alamance County’s commissioners had already declared their disinclination to move or dismantle their own homage to the Confederate States. But the law’s approval only strengthened the resolve of the commissioners to stick to their guns. Even so, the county’s leaders continued to hear periodic calls to take down the monument.
These pleas took on an added intensity in the spring of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police set off a national clamor for racial equity in the criminal justice system.
It was amid the heightened sensitivities stoked by Floyd’s death that North Carolina’s chapter of the NAACP began to mount its legal campaign against Alamance County’s Confederate monument. In March of 2021, the organization formally sued the county as well as the members of its board of commissioners to compel them to remove this memorial from the grounds of the courthouse.
The NAACP insisted that the defendants had failed to live up to their obligations under the state constitution by allowing this monument “to white supremacy” to remain in this location. The organization also accused the county of violating the constitutional rights of black residents – several of whom are among the NAACP’s co-plaintiffs in this legal action.
The county, for its part, initially tried to get the court to dismiss the NAACP’s case, although its lawyers failed to convince a superior court judge that the organization’s complaint was so obviously devoid of merit that it shouldn’t move forward.
Denied an outright dismissal, the county’s attorneys have gone on to request a summary judgment in the hope that they could short circuit this case before it goes on to trial. The arguments for this motion have been laid out on the county’s behalf by Christopher Geis, an attorney with the Winston-Salem-based firm Womble Bond Dickinson.
Plaintiffs’, county’s legal interpretations differ
During Monday’s pre-trial hearing, Geis insisted that the NAACP’s entire case hangs on whether the county’s Confederate monument enjoys the state’s statutory protection as an object of remembrance.
“In the face of calls from the county manager and countless others for the monument to come down, members of the Alamance County board of commissioners and the county attorney have taken the erroneous position that they are legally prohibited from removing the monument.– NAACP lawsuit
Geis insisted that the county’s monument falls under this law because it honors Confederate veterans, who are recognized for their military service under both state and federal law.
“The plaintiffs want one judge to invalidate what the elected board of commissioners has decided,” he added,” and that is not democratic.” Christopher Geis of Womble Bond Dickinson law firm, representing Alamance County’s commissioners
Geis went on to recall that the preservation of Confederate monuments was the General Assembly’s unabashed goal when it enacted the aforementioned law in 2015. He went on to discourage the court from doing anything to undermine this state law or compel the commissioners to act contrary to its strictures. He stressed that, in the final analysis, this determination to preserve or remove the county’s monument is best left to a democratically-elected body like the General Assembly or the board of commissioners.
Geis said that, in the current case, the commissioners either had no choice but to follow the dictates of the General Assembly or they had the discretion to make their own decision regarding the county’s memorial.
“The plaintiffs want one judge to invalidate what the elected board of commissioners has decided,” he added,” and that is not democratic.”
“The only threat present [in Alamance County’s case] is the threat posed by crowds who disagree about whether the statue should be removed, and one should not benefit from one’s own creation of a danger.” – Christopher Geis of Womble Bond Dickinson law firm, representing Alamance County’s commissioners
Geis also took issue with the plaintiff’s contention that the commissioners could take advantage of an exemption in the state law that permits the relocation of memorials which pose public safety hazards. Geis argued that a reference in the law to a building inspector makes it clear that the legislature was thinking of structural dangers when it wrote this exemption.
“The only threat present [in Alamance County’s case] is the threat posed by crowds who disagree about whether the statue should be removed,” he insisted, “and one should not benefit from one’s own creation of a danger.”
The NAACP, on the other hand, has seen the threat posed by rival demonstrators as a preeminent reason to move the Confederate monument from the grounds of the courthouse.
“The multi-story structure…poses a threat to public safety, drains the public fisc, and stands in violation of multiple provisions of the North Carolina constitution,” legal complaint goes on to declare. “Its presence harms all county taxpayers, particularly black residents…Yet, the Alamance County board of commissioners refuses to act.” – From original NAACP lawsuit
The plaintiffs point out that Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood reached a similar conclusion during the unrest that occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, although Hagood’s emphatic pleas to allow the monument’s temporary removal ultimately failed to gain any traction with the commissioners.
Karin Dryhurst, who has served as the NAACP’s lead counsel in this case, noted that the differing views of what constitutes of a public safety hazard are just one of the many factual disagreements that divide the two litigants.
Dryhurst went on to mention other factual disputes that are already apparent in the pre-trial phase of this case. She observed that the litigants are at loggerheads over whether the county’s Confederate monument is a “military memorial” as the county contents or “symbol to white supremacy” as her clients prefer. She also saw no consensus among the parties as to whether the commissioners were properly advised of the options available to them under the relevant state statute.
“Those are a factual disputes to be considered at trial,” she added.
In addition to his assertions about Geis also argued that the NAACP’s complaints against specific county commissioners are nullified by their “governmental immunity.” He added that their claims to this immunity will be the basis for an automatic appeal should Bridges rule against the county’s request for a summary judgment.
Dryhurst tried to forestall this potential appeal based on governmental immunity by offering to drop each of the named county commissioners from the NAACP’s list of defendants.