Arlington, VA

The backers of a lawsuit seeking to preserve the name of Washington-Lee High School are working to keep their legal challenge alive, appealing the matter to a higher court after a judge previously struck down the suit on procedural grounds.

Three current W-L students are hoping to block the Arlington School Board’s decision to strip Robert E. Lee’s name from the building, arguing that the Board didn’t follow its own stated policies for renaming the building and ignored the community’s opposition to the switch. The Board first kicked off a process to consider a name change in August 2017, in the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville and a nationwide reconsideration of the meaning of Confederate symbols.

Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge William Newman ruled in December that the students were barking up the wrong tree, noting that the Board broadly followed the community engagement process it laid out for the name change, and that state law doesn’t even bind school officials to follow that process to the letter, in the first place.

But the students, who are backed by a group of the school’s alumni working feverishly to preserve W-L’s name, were undeterred. Their attorney, Jonathon Moseley, told ARLnow that he’ll be appealing Newman’s ruling, even though the Board already voted last month to rename the school as “Washington-Liberty HS.”

“The judge took into account that [the School Board] didn’t follow all of their own procedures for the renaming, but he said it didn’t matter that they didn’t,” Moseley said. “I don’t like that idea, and I think it’s a pretty important issue that the courts need to address.”

Moseley expects that the appeal will head to Virginia’s Court of Appeals, rather than the state’s Supreme Court, though he’s still waiting on judges to sort out the details. He filed his notice of appeal in circuit court on Jan. 30.

Initially, Moseley had planned to simply amend his original complaint. Even though Newman struck down the students’ initial legal arguments, he gave Moseley until Jan. 9 to file revised arguments instead.

Court documents show that he missed that deadline, asking instead for Newman to issue a written explanation for why he blocked Moseley’s previous efforts and more time to consider next steps.

“I wanted more information about the judge was thinking,” Moseley said. “If there were no set of facts we could allege that showed the Board violated the rules, there’s nothing I could’ve added that would’ve been any different.”

But attorneys for the School Board pointed out in a motion that that request came “on the eve of the School Board’s vote on a new name for Washington-Lee High School” on Jan. 10, arguing it was “nothing more than a delay tactic.”

Similarly, Board attorney John Cafferky argued that Moseley “failed to articulate any legal authority” for a delay, urging Newman to toss out the case.

The judge proved to be sympathetic to those arguments. He ruled against Moseley’s motion in a Jan. 25 hearing, reasoning that the students missed their chance to file any revised claims and that the court no longer has jurisdiction over the matter.

That’s forced Moseley to appeal the dispute to a higher court instead, which could drag out the proceedings for months yet. He plans to have a brief ready supporting his appeal within the next 90 days, then the court will need to decide whether to take the case.

“It could be a year to a year-and-a half project if the appeals court decides it’s even going to look into that at all,” Moseley said. “They can do what they want.”

In the meantime, the school system is moving ahead with putting the building’s new name in place. Officials hope to have everything from signage to sports uniforms changed to reflect the new “Washington-Liberty” name in time for the 2019-2020 school year to start up in September.

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