NEW ORLEANS -- Hours after Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed a controversial ordinance to declare four Confederate monument public nuisances, a group of preservationists filed a federal lawsuit looking to stop their removals before they can begin.
The plaintiffs' move was likely planned well ahead of time, considering the scope of the lawsuit, and something the Landrieu administration expected. A city spokesman noted in an afternoon news release that the administration recognized at least one of the monuments, the Battle of Liberty Place obelisk, is protected under a prior federal order.
In the 12-count, 51-page filing, the plaintiffs ask a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and permanent injunction against Landrieu and the city, "barring them from removing, disassembling, placing into storage or tampering in any way with" the Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis and Liberty Place monuments.
"The Lee Monument, the Beauregard equestrian monument, the Jefferson Davis monument and the Liberty Monument were explicitly erected to preserve, foster and promote the historic and cultural origins of the citizens of New Orleans and the residents of Louisiana," the suit reads.
The City Council voted 6-1 Thursday following hours of impassioned debate to declare the four monuments nuisances. Councilwoman Stacy Head was the lone dissenting vote.
Perhaps most controversial of the four monuments is the Battle of Liberty Place obelisk, dedicated to an attempted insurrection by the Crescent City White League against the Reconstruction state government.
That monument was relocated from the foot of Canal Street to an obscure corner behind the Westin Hotel at the foot of Iberville Street. It was moved to its current location as part of a consent order the city entered in 1992, something the lawsuit argues prohibits its removal by city ordinance.
"At no time has the city of New Orleans sought relief from the court order, filed a motion to alter or amend the stipulations, or otherwise sought to reopen … the proceedings," the suit reads.
The Landrieu administration on Thursday afternoon issued a statement noting that it "will begin the legal process necessary to remove the Liberty Place monument, which is currently subject to a federal court order."
The city said it intends to begin the process for removing the other monuments as soon as possible, perhaps "in days."
Eyewitness News legal analyst "Chick" Foret said that any lawsuit would be hard to defend because of the ordinance being signed into law and that legal research done by the city and council would have taken place to protect each party.
"The research has been done. He (Landrieu) knows what he needs to do legally," Foret said. "The only question is are the preservationists going to be able to file a lawsuit … and get any relief" in the form of an injunction. "My legal opinion is I think not."
Foret said he would not be surprised to see the monuments taken down as soon as possible, before any possible legal action could stop the work, something he thinks is an unlikely possibility.
"I think that federal court and the federal judges here in New Orleans will decline to intercede or get involved in this debate because the law is pretty clear the governing body of New Orleans has the authority to do what they did today."
The city did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment about the lawsuit. The plaintiffs said that no one would be available for an interview Thursday night.
Arguments the plaintiffs make include a claim that the Lee, Beauregard and Davis monuments are protected on the National Register of Historic Places.
It also argues that removing the statues of Lee, Beauregard and Davis violates the Veterans Memorial Preservation and Recognition Act.
"Prior to 1861, Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard and Jefferson Davis were members of the Armed Forces of the United States. All three served with distinction in the Mexican War," the suit reads. "Although Lee, Beauregard and Davis later resigned their commissions in the Armed Forces of the United States, (United States code) contains no exception of qualifications to the protection if affords to structures, statues or monuments to members of the armed forces of the United States."
And while there were several public hearings on the matter, the suit alleges that some opinions were valued more than others.
"The city's efforts to move the four monuments appears to have originated with the musician Wynton Marsalis, whose opinion has inexplicably been afforded more weight than that of the residents of New Orleans," the suit reads. "The defendants intentionally treated plaintiffs and persons opposed to the removal of the four monuments differently."
The plaintiffs argued that the removal of the monuments violates the state Constitution since that document allows for "the right of people to preserve foster and promote their respective historic linguistic and cultural origins.
"The Lee monument, the Beauregard equestrian monument, the Jefferson Davis monument and the Liberty monument were explicitly erected to preserve, foster and promote the historic and cultural origins of the citizens of New Orleans and the residents of Louisiana."
And while the city has said private funds will cover the expected price tag of $170,000 – Landrieu has not said who is providing the money -- to remove the statues, the lawsuit argues that the city violated its policy to accept such donations.
"The mayor's effort to fund removal of the monuments through the promise of an anonymous, unwritten donation is a violation of plaintiffs' rights to due process of law. The plan … is rife with the possibility of influence pedaling (if not worse) because it precludes and possibility the public will know whether the individual who made the donation receives anything of value from the city."
When it comes to where the Lee, Beauregard and Davis monuments sit, the actual land isn't even clearly the property of the city, the plaintiffs argue.
The suit alleges that Beauregard Camp No. 130 and the state paid a portion to design, sculpt and install Beauregard and Davis monuments and, in turn, have ownership in them.
"Because the city of New Orleans is not the full owner of the Beauregard equestrian monument or the Jefferson Davis monument and does not have a clear title to the property on which either monument is erected, the city lacks authority to require removal of either monument."
Filing the suit were the Monumental Task Committee, which recently called for keeping the monuments in place, the Louisiana Landmarks Society, Foundation for Historical Louisiana and Beauregard Camp No. 130, a local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
In addition to Landrieu and the city, Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation; the U.S. Department of Transportation; Matthew Welbes, executive director of the Federal Transit Administration; the Federal Transit Administration; the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority are named as defendants.
The plaintiffs argue that federal money to pay for streetcar work makes the lines part of a transportation network that encompasses the city and that federal dollars would, in turn, have been spent on projects that could have damaged the monuments since three of the four are near streetcar lines.