A federal judge reacted with skepticism and frustration to arguments put forward by opponents of Mayor Mitch Landrieu's plan to remove four monuments to Confederates or white supremacists on Thursday.
The hearing was held to determine whether the court should order the city to refrain from taking down the monuments while a lawsuit filed by four groups opposed to their removal plays out in court. But U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier seemed to clearly be leaning against doing so and repeatedly told attorneys seeking to keep the monuments in place that their arguments didn't make sense or were not matters for the federal courts to decide.
Barbier did not issue a ruling during the hearing but said he would have a written decision ready in the near future.
In opening the hearing, Barbier said he was determined to rule only on the legal issues in the case and not wade into the political decisions of Landrieu and the City Council and the "wisdom or lack thereof" of their decision. He also made clear that he considered an order temporarily blocking the statues' removal to be an extraordinary measure and that the plaintiffs faced an uphill battle to make that case.
The lawsuit was filed by the Monumental Task Committee, Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana and Beauregard Camp No. 130 just hours after the New Orleans City Council voted to take down monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the white militia that led a rebellion against the state's Reconstruction-era government. City officials have said they will not take action to remove the statues until they get the court's ok.
The suit contains a dozen arguments against removing the monuments, though only some featured prominently in Thursday's hearing. Attorneys for the groups argued that moving the statues could damage them and therefore they should remain where they were until the case plays out to avoid having to move them twice.
But Barbier, recalling the removal and replacement of the Statue of Freedom from the top of the U.S. Capitol’s dome in 1993, seemed to give little credence to the idea that statues could not be moved safely.
In order to secure a preliminary injunction that would prevent the city from removing the statues, the plaintiffs in the suit also have to prove that they had a chance of winning at trial. Barbier cast doubt on that possibility, however. He repeatedly grilled attorneys on their claims and seemed less than satisfied with their responses.
Among the major arguments made in the suit is that because the statues are located near streetcar lines that were paid for with federal funds, historical studies done at the time those lines were extended should offer them some protection. But Barbier seemed to dismiss that claim.
"I went back and read your legal memorandum at least five times and I don't even understand your argument," Barbier said. "Usually I understand an argument even if I don't agree with it."
The plaintiffs have also argued that volunteer work done by the Monumental Task Committee to restore and maintain some of the statues gives the group a stake in their fate. But Barbier likened that argument to saying that because you helped a neighbor put out a fire in his house, you now own part of the building.
The judge was similarly dismissive of another line of attack claiming the city violated Constitutional due process requirements by not providing enough of an opportunity for opponents to weigh in on the case. Barbier replied to that by recalling the two hours-long City Council meetings leading up to the vote, as well several committee hearings on the matter.
"It seems to me there was a lot of due process here," Barbier said.