Those hoping to keep Confederate monuments in place face uphill battle in court, federal judge says

A federal judge repeatedly criticized arguments that New Orleans should be blocked from taking down four monuments to Confederate leaders or white supremacists during a court hearing Thursday, the same day city officials announced that the contractor hired to remove the statues has pulled out of the job after receiving death threats.

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier frequently interrupted attorneys for four groups seeking to block the monuments’ removal, telling them their arguments made little sense or had sparse evidence to support them.

The hearing was held to determine whether Barbier should issue an injunction prohibiting removal of the statues while the full case plays out in his court. By its end, he seemed to suggest that doing so would unnecessarily usurp the City Council’s authority and that few of the arguments against moving the monuments had merit in his view.

Barbier did not make a ruling Thursday but promised to issue a written opinion soon.

Meanwhile, the city filed court documents saying that Baton Rouge-based H&O Investments, which had been hired to remove the statues, withdrew from the job after its owner, David Mahler, his wife and his staff received death threats. City officials did not respond to requests for additional information.

Roy Maughen Jr., an attorney for H&O, said the city had forwarded information on the threats to federal authorities.

In opening the hearing Thursday, Barbier said he was determined to rule only on the legal issues in the case and not the political wisdom of the decisions of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council.

The lawsuit was filed by the Monumental Task Committee, the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana and Beauregard Camp No. 130 just hours after the City Council voted in December to take down monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the white militia group that led a rebellion against the state’s biracial Reconstruction-era government.

City officials have said they will not take action to remove the statues until they get the court’s approval.

One question considered during the hearing was whether moving the monuments would do harm that could not be rectified by simply putting them back if the plaintiffs eventually win their case.

Attorney Franklin Jones argued that the risk of damaging the statues was too great and that an expert had said there were many uncertainties with moving complex monuments. But Barbier seemed to give little credence to that argument, noting that the expert who was cited worked in offshore rigging and had never moved a statue. The judge also recalled the successful removal and replacement of the Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol by helicopter when repairs were required.

To secure the injunction they sought, the plaintiffs in the suit also had to prove 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.

The groups argued that because the statues are located near streetcar lines that were paid for with federal funds, historical studies done at the time the lines were extended should offer the monuments some protection.

Assistant City Attorney Adam Swensek balked at that claim.

“To claim that monuments to white supremacy are an integral part of a streetcar line is laughable,” he said.

Barbier, too, had harsh words for that line of argument.

“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 also have 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 citing the two lengthy City Council meetings leading up to the vote, as well as several committee hearings.

“It seems to me there was a lot of due process here,” Barbier said. “You can argue with the result, and you do.”

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.

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