Alabama Supreme Court upholds Confederate monument law

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Birmingham city workers covered the Confederate Monument in Linn Park in August 2017. It took the workers about 45 minutes to erect the 12×16 foot plywood enclosure around the base of the monument. (Joe Songer|[email protected])

By Mike Cason | [email protected]

The Alabama Supreme Court today ruled that the city of Birmingham violated Alabama’s monument protection law when it placed a plywood screen around a Confederate monument in Linn Park in August 2017.

In a 9-0 decision, the justices reversed a lower court ruling in favor of the city. The Supreme Court sent the case back to circuit court with instructions to enter an order that the city broke the law and must pay a $25,000 fine.

The Legislature passed the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act in 2017 in response to removals and calls for removal of Confederate monuments on public property.

The law prohibits local governments from moving, altering, renaming, or otherwise disturbing monuments that have been in place 40 years or more.

The stone base of the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument has been in Linn Park since 1894. The marble shaft was added in 1905, when the Pelham Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy dedicated the monument.

Former Birmingham Mayor William Bell ordered the covering of the monument. Bell took that step after a city councilman asked that the monument be removed.

Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a lawsuit asking the court to declare the covering of the monument violated the Memorial Preservation Act.

In January, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Michael Graffeo ruled that the law violated the city’s rights to free speech and due process.

“Just as the state could not force any particular citizen to post a pro-Confederacy sign in his or her front lawn, so too can the state not commandeer the city’s property for the state’s preferred message,” Graffeo wrote.

In a 44-page opinion today, Justice Tommy Bryan cited legal precedents and concluded that the circuit court erred in ruling that the city had constitutional rights to free speech and due process.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall praised the court’s decision in a statement today.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling is a victory for the Alabama law which seeks to protect historical monuments,” Marshall said. “The City of Birmingham acted unlawfully when it erected barriers to obstruct the view of the 114-year-old Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Linn Park.”

Rick Journey, the city’s director of communications, also issued a statement in response to the ruling.

We are strongly disappointed with the ruling of the Alabama Supreme Court,” Journey said. “This ruling appears to be less about the rule of law and more about politics. We are carefully reviewing the opinion to determine our next step, but clearly the citizens of Birmingham should have the final decision about what happens with monuments on Birmingham city grounds.”

The plywood screen remains in place for now.

The Supreme Court ruling also addressed the amount of the fine. The law calls for a $25,000 fine for each violation of the act. Bryan concluded that the city was subject to a single $25,000 fine, rather than a fine for each day the monument was covered.

Justice Michael Bolin, in a special concurring opinion, questioned whether a fine in that amount was an effective deterrent against violating the law and encouraged the Legislature to revisit the law.

Updated at 3:18 p.m. with statement from the city.

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