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Judge: UT Confederate Statue Can Be Removed

The statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis at the University of Texas at Austin will soon be taken down. Its removal was cleared Thursday by a state district judge, who threw out a challenge filed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans seeking to block UT-Austin’s plan to remove the sculpture.

The statue of Jefferson Davis, once president of the Confederate States, stands just south of the Main Building on UT's campus on June 22, 2015.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

The University of Texas at Austin will take down a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the next few days after a Travis County judge denied a request by a southern heritage group to block the school’s plans.

State District Judge Karin Crump ruled Thursday that the Sons of Confederate Veterans didn’t have the right to sue to halt the statue’s removal. Even if it did, she found, it appears unlikely that the legal effort would have succeeded.

Crump seemed unswayed by the confederate group's arguments that the statue was too brittle or artistically and historically important to be relocated.

UT-Austin plans to move the statue to the on-campus Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, where students and members of the public can see it. School officials say they'll show the statue in its proper historical context.

Its current home is the school’s heavily trafficked south mall, within eyesight of the UT Tower. Its prominence has been a source of tension on campus for years. The statue has repeatedly been vandalized, and calls for its removal intensified this summer after nine people were killed in a racially motivated shooting in Charleston, S.C.

On Thursday, Kirk Lyons, the confederate group’s lawyer, made an impassioned plea to leave the statue where it is, twice comparing UT-Austin’s decision to actions of the Islamic State group. The first time, the judge deemed that comparison irrelevant, but Lyons raised it again during his closing argument.

“I apologize if anyone was offended by my actions comparing removal of the statues to ISIS and the Taliban, but that is what it smacks (of),” Lyons said. 

Earlier in the hearing, he said UT-Austin’s decision set a “dangerous precedent” that would lead to removal of other statues.

“I am afraid we will be signing the death warrant for every statue on campus, except maybe Barbara Jordan and Martin Luther King,” he said.

Representing the university, lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office mostly avoided discussing the historical or political significance of the move. Instead, they focused on how the statue could be safely moved, and argued that no one from the confederate group was being harmed by the removal. If the confederates were unable to show how their property rights or finances would be hurt, they didn’t have any standing, the attorneys argued.

Lyons admitted in court that winning the case was a long shot, but said he felt his group needed to do something.

“If someone is drowning, it doesn’t matter too much who has standing to pull them out of the water,” he told the judge.

A few dozen people, mostly supporters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, packed the tiny courtroom to watch. The jostling for seats before the hearing got tense at times. One attendee threatened to break a journalist’s leg after he accidentally stepped on her foot. Eventually, the judge ordered everyone in the room who didn’t have a seat to leave.

After the hearing, UT-Austin officials said they didn’t know exactly when the statue would be moved. They predicted it would happen “in the next few days.”

A statue of former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson will also be removed. No one was complaining about that one, but it is across the mall from the Davis statue and will be moved for the sake of symmetry. Other statues of Confederate leaders — including Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston — will remain on the mall. UT-Austin officials say the men depicted in those statues have strong connections to Texas.

Lyons said he didn’t know whether the confederates would appeal the judge’s ruling. Litigation is expensive, he said, and his group knew that its odds were slim against UT-Austin, a powerful school with lots of resources. But he said he was proud to have put up a fight. Someone needs to protect the monuments, he said.

“Sometimes you have got to be that Chinese student in front of those four tanks in Tiananmen Square,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified one of the statues on campus. It is of Robert E. Lee, not Stonewall Jackson. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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