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Castleman case is back on the court docket. Here’s where the statue stands

Martina Kunnecke and Steve Wiser, spokespeople for the Friends of Louisville Public Art, stand in front of the plinth in Cherokee Triangle from which Louisville Metro Government removed the statue of John Castleman.
Sylvia Goodman
Martina Kunnecke and Steve Wiser, spokespeople for the Friends of Louisville Public Art, stand in front of the plinth in Cherokee Triangle from which Louisville Metro Government removed the statue of John Castleman.

After years in court, the legal battle over Louisville Metro Government’s decision to remove the statue of John B. Castleman endures with no end in sight.

Castleman served as a major in the Confederate Army, and for many, his commemoration represented a nostalgia for Confederate figures and a racist past. Proponents of the statue argue that Castleman is an important part of Louisville history for his contributions to Louisville’s park system and his U.S. Army service.

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

The legal fight over the statue, which had stood in Cherokee Triangle for 100 years when it was removed, has stretched since 2019. The preservation group, Friends of Louisville Public Art, has led the fight to preserve it and has been attempting to since 2017.

Members of Friends of Louisville Public Art once again demanded the city replace the statue in a news conference Wednesday. Steve Wiser, a spokesperson for the group, also called for a new memorial that would sit across from the statue, should it be replaced.

“Instead of wasting thousands of tax dollars on avoiding the truth of Castleman and his distinguished legacy, the city should recognize his achievements, as well as those of the Black community who worked with him on various civil rights matters,” Wiser said.

The current court battle

The legal battle doesn’t revolve around Castleman’s merits, but the procedure around the statue’s removal.

In April, the Kentucky Supreme Court set aside the Landmark Commission’s decision to remove the statue and returned the case to the circuit court.

“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.”

In May, the Friends of Louisville Public Art began the process of asking the courts to order the city to reinstall the statue.

The city argued that reinstating it would be “legally futile and a waste of taxpayer dollars” in a court filing. In a new legal strategy, Anne Scholtz, an attorney for the city, argued that Kentucky statutes do not require the city to get approval from planning and zoning entities to remove the statue, and that ultimately, they will be able to remove the statue without the Landmark Commission voting.

The city said they would engage in a Community Facilities Review, which requires the government to inform the Landmarks Commission of a proposed project. The commission then holds a public meeting within 60 days and can make recommendations, which the city argues are non-binding.

Castleman Statue
Mike Edgerly
Castleman Statue

Scholtz said the city submitted its proposal to permanently remove the statue on June 20. She said that, based on conversations she had with city officials, it would take six months to replace the statue, which was never cleaned after protestors threw red paint on it.

“It is a foregone conclusion that if this Court forced Metro Government to return the statue to Cherokee Park, the statue will be removed again because Metro Government has the authority to do so,” the city’s court filing reads.

Stephen Porter, the Friends of Louisville Public Art’s lawyer, argued that it was “too late” for the city to raise a new defense, saying it had never before argued that it is exempt from applying to planning and zoning committees.

The group also questioned why the city did not invoke the Community Facilities Review statue in 2018 when former Mayor Greg Fischer announced he would remove the statue.

“The Defendants in this case had a full opportunity to raise this defense at some point in the lengthy processings and failed to do so. Now is too late, even if it were a legitimate defense,” the plaintiff’s court filling read.

Scholtz said that the city came across the new process “with fresh eyes, fresh people.”

After appearing in court, Porter said that he will likely fight the proposal that the city submitted the day before.

“We will probably do something to say that these filings are in violation of what the Supreme Court has said and therefore shouldn't even be accepted by either the Landmarks Commission or the Planning Commission,” Porter said.

Wiser also said at the Wednesday conference that he would take the case all the way back to the Kentucky Supreme Court if he had to.

By the time the city removed the statue of Castleman in 2020, it was splattered with paint.

Scholtz said that the vandalism is cause for public safety concern and another reason not to reinstall the statue. She also said the best way to protect the statue is to keep it out of Cherokee Triangle. She noted that before its removal, the statue had to be guarded by two police officers.

“Given these realities, the public interest would be served by maintaining the status quo and keeping the statue in storage until the process for removing the statue has been completed.”

Porter argued it is the city’s duty to protect the statute. In a court filing, he rebuffed the idea that the depiction of Castleman was a Confederate statue because it depicts the former Confederate major in a “civilian saddlebred outfit” and was purchased, Porter contends, in honor of Castleman’s civic pursuits.

Neighborhood response

Richard Hopkins has lived near the Castleman statue since he was born in 1951 and still lives there today. Hopkins said he never saw the statue as a Confederate monument. He said he feels the statue’s absence every time he passes by the now empty plinth.

“I drove by probably five times a week, for 50 years. Public art contributes tremendously to a city's beauty, character, vitality,” Hopkins said. “Everyone in this whole community contributed to the maintenance of this statute.”

In an opinion piece for the Courier Journal, David Horvath, a member of the Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice Communications Team and Co-Coordinator of LSURJ Faith, argued that the statue is an “an ode to inequities” and urged the city to look to the future rather than toward the past.

“Let us move forward, beyond the Castleman statue, and work on those issues that move us toward greater equity and justice,” Horvath wrote.

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

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