Plans to take down four monuments to Confederate leaders and a white supremacist uprising in New Orleans will be put on hold while a case seeking to block their removal plays out, a federal appellate court ruled Friday.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction preventing Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration from moving forward with the monuments’ removal until the court considers an appeal by the statues’ supporters.
Judges Edith Brown Clement, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Leslie H. Southwick, all appointed by former President George W. Bush, issued the order.
The decision overturns a ruling by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton, that the city could go ahead with plans to remove the statues because the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail at a trial.
The injunction stems from a case brought by the Monumental Task Committee and other groups opposed to taking down the statues honoring Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and a militia group known as the White League that sought to overthrow the state’s biracial Reconstruction-era government.
“We appreciate the unanimous decision of the panel of federal judges, which acknowledges that removing the monuments is premature,” Monumental Task Committee President Pierre McGraw said in an emailed statement. “This action will allow for a full review of the constitutional and statutory issues at stake in this case.”
The New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 in December to allow the monuments’ removal, as Landrieu had requested several months earlier.
The monuments’ defenders argue that removing them would violate the federal and state constitutions and would ignore the stake the Monumental Task Committee and other groups have in their fate because of work the groups have done to maintain the statues.
Those groups asked for an injunction earlier this week, noting that their appeal of Barbier’s ruling was unlikely to be resolved before the city is due to choose a contractor to do the work on April 22. Briefs from the groups opposed to the removal are not due until four days before that date, and the city is not required to respond until mid-May, when the removal of at least three of the statues presumably would be underway or completed. A ruling from the appeals court is not expected until the summer.
The Landrieu administration did not say Friday what effect the ruling would have on its plans.
“The city is evaluating the implications that this ruling will have on the bid process,” administration spokeswoman Sarah McLaughlin said in an email.
In their request for an injunction, the monument backers argued that allowing the process to go forward could result in irreparable harm to the statues if they are damaged during the removal. They said that damage would be impractical or impossible to repair and that while contractors would be on the hook for those repairs, the city’s bid documents do not require contractors to have insurance that would cover that cost.
The plaintiffs also argued that the withdrawal of the originally selected contractor — whose owner said he had received death threats because of his willingness to participate in the project — and the crane company that firm had identified to do the removal means there is no evidence the companies involved in the work would have the expertise necessary to remove the statues without damage.
“An evolving set of facts and several errors of law by the trial court have combined to create a situation in which an injunction issued by this court is the only remedy that can prevent needless damage to or destruction of four priceless works of art that have graced the New Orleans cityscape for more than a century,” according to the plaintiffs’ filing.
The court order could also provide an opportunity for state lawmakers to pass a bill aimed at preventing the monuments’ removal. Even if the city wins the ongoing court fight, the passage of the legislation to keep the monuments standing could spark another legal battle.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.