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Kentucky Supreme Court rules Castleman statue was improperly removed, returns case to lower courts

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

The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that lower courts made a mistake in their rulings over the removal of the statue of John Castleman from Cherokee Triangle.

By the time the city removed the statue of Castleman in 2020, protesters had splattered the facade in red paint.

The vandalism was done to protest the statue’s presence in a roundabout it had resided in for 100 years. Castleman served as a major in the Confederate Army, and for many, his depiction represented a problematic nostalgia and a racist history.

The statue was one of 168 Confederate symbols removed amid national racial-justice protests over the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

But even before the statue was removed, an art-preservation group waged a legal battle against the Louisville Metro Government to preserve it.

The group, called the Friends of Louisville Public Art, sued the city over the statue’s removal in 2019. Supporters of the Castleman statue point to his contributions to Louisville’s parks and his service in the U.S. Army.

The Friends of Louisville Public Art said the Historic Landmarks Commission had a conflict of interest when it voted to remove the statue because some of the members were employees of Louisville Metro government.

The group appealed to the Kentucky Supreme Court after two lower courts ruled against them.

On Thursday, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in agreement with Friends of Louisville Public Art, saying the lower courts should not have accepted the Historic Landmarks Commission’s decision because the conflict of interest violated due process.

“We underscore that we express no opinion as to the fate of the statue in question. That is ultimately a decision for the citizens of Louisville,” Chief Justice Laurance VanMeter wrote in the majority opinion. “Those citizens, however, having created a process for that decision must abide by that process, and must not act arbitrarily.”

The Supreme Court agreed and ordered the Circuit Court to review the case again while disregarding the commission’s decision.

Former Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration initially announced plans to remove the statue in 2018. Fischer applied to the Cherokee Triangle Architectural Review Committee. They voted in a 3-3 tie, which the committee agreed would mean a denial of the application.

Fischer appealed the decision to the Historic Landmarks Commission, which decided to remove the statue in 2019.

Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Lexington, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.

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