Supreme Court keeps Pittsburgh’s efforts to remove Columbus statue alive

PITTSBURGH (AP) — A Pennsylvania appeals court has kept alive an Italian heritage group’s challenge to the city of Pittsburgh’s efforts to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from a city park.

The Commonwealth Court sent the dispute over the 13-foot-tall bronze and granite Schenley Park statue back to the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court on Friday for further hearing on issues raised by opponents of its removal.

The Italian Sons and Daughters of America filed suit in October 2020 after the Pittsburgh Art Commission voted to remove the statue and then-Mayor Bill Peduto also recommended its removal. The group argued that the mayor could not override a 1955 City Council ordinance that cleared the way for the 800-pound statue’s installation. City attorneys argued that the legislation was more like a resolution accepting a gift and did not require council action to revoke it.

Judge John McVay Jr. ruled, after two years of urging both parties to work out a solution, such as relocation, in 2022 that because the statue is in a park owned by the city, it represents a speech by the government. But the Commonwealth Court wrote Friday that McVay erred in concluding that the group’s claims “are dismissed in their entirety,” rejecting what it called the idea that claims of violations of the charter, code and regulation of the city’s ‘irrelevant procedural chatter’.

The appeals court rejected the group’s challenge to McVay’s refusal to remove himself from the case.

Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto, who filed the lawsuit and subsequent appeal on behalf of the group, applauded the ruling and called on the new mayor to “sit down with me to reach a resolution without further costly litigation.” ” A message seeking comment was sent Sunday to a spokesperson for Pittsburgh’s mayor.

The Schenley Park statue, which has been vandalized several times, was wrapped in plastic in 2020, but local news reports indicate that much of the covering has since worn away or perhaps been removed, although the head is still covered.

Disputes over Columbus statues have roiled other cities across the country, including Philadelphia on the other side of the state, where supporters in a city with a deep Italian heritage say they view Columbus as an emblem of that heritage. However, former Mayor Jim Kenney said Columbus, revered for centuries as an explorer, had a “much more infamous” history in which he enslaved indigenous people and imposed harsh punishments.

Following protests in 2020 over racial injustice and the statue, Kenney ordered the removal of the 1876 statue, calling it a matter of public safety. But a judge reversed that decision, saying the city had failed to provide evidence of the need for removal for public safety. In December 2022, a plywood box covering the statue was removed by court order. The group that fought to preserve the statue and remove the covering filed a lawsuit last year alleging that officials conspired to abuse the legal process in removing the statue, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Columbus statues have been removed in nearby Camden, New Jersey and Wilmington, Delaware. In Richmond, Virginia, a statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down, set on fire and thrown into a lake. In Columbia, South Carolina, the first American city to be named after Columbus, a statue of the explorer was removed after being vandalized several times. Another vandalized statue in Boston was also removed from its pedestal.