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Kentucky Supreme Court hears case over John Castleman statue removal

Castleman Statue
Michael Edgerly
The statue of John Castleman was vandalized many times before its removal.

Kentucky Supreme Court Justices heard oral arguments in a case regarding the removal of the John Castleman statue from the Cherokee Triangle neighborhood.

A group called Friends of Louisville Public Art has been working to get the statue put back up. The group filed an appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court in June stating they believe the statue of John Castleman, once a major in the Confederate Army, was removed without due process.

“The appellants [Friends of Louisville Public Art] claim that a failure in the Louisville Metro Landmarks proceedings occurred because of a conflict of interest by three metro officers,” said Stephen Porter, the attorney representing Friends of Louisville Public Art.

Porter was referring to the presence of three members involved in the proceedings also being appointees to different positions in then-Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration.

It was Fischer's appeal to the Cherokee Triangle Architectural Review Committee that first began the process of getting the statue removed. That vote, which included one of the metro government appointees, ended in a tie.

Fischer then appealed to the fullHistoric Landmarks and Preservation Districts Commission, where the other two metro government appointees who served on that group voted in favor of Fischer’s appeal. The 5-3 result of that vote allowed the statue to be removed.

Porter argues that without those two votes, the appeal would have been denied.

He said the Circuit Court, which upheld the decision, failed to consider the conflict of interest. The Court of Appeals did consider this issue but stated the appearance of a conflict of interest was not enough to overturn the decision.

This is similar to the rebuttal argument being made by Assistant Jefferson County Attorney David Sexton at the hearing Thursday.

“The conflict of interest, as I understand it, would be if they had an actual conflict of interest,” Sexton said.

He defined these as personal or financial interests that would impact the decision-making of the committee and commission members.

Kentucky Chief Justice Laurance VanMeter asked Sexton if he didn’t consider the members in question's “at-will” employment by Fischer a conflict of interest.

Sexton agreed to the “appearance” of a conflict of interest but remained firm that there wasn’t evidence to prove an actual one.

Porter argued that proving “an empirical conflict of interest” would be impossible.

“What public officer hired by the mayor would admit ‘Yes, I have a conflict because if I fail to vote with the mayor on this question so politically significant to him, I will be going against the will and cause of my boss',” Porter said.

Officials did not say when the court will make its decision.

Fischer began the process to remove the statue in August 2018, and it was taken down in 2020. The Historic Landmarks and Preservation Districts Commission approved the removal. Residents appealed the decision, but a circuit judge upheld the city’s choice.

The statue of Castleman resided in a roundabout in Cherokee Triangle for more than 100 years. The statue faced growing criticism in recent years due to the fact that Castleman was a major in the Confederate Army.

While later pardoned for these actions, opponents of the statue said it represents a racist history.

Supporters of the statue highlight Castleman’s later service in the U.S. Army and role in developing Louisville’s park system.

Early plans would have seen the Castleman statue relocated to his burial site in Cave Hill Cemetery after being cleaned and receiving maintenance. That hasn’t happened.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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