RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam can remove this city's towering tribute to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a circuit court judge ruled Tuesday. But the judge also halted the governor from acting immediately, allowing the group trying to preserve the statue to mount an appeal.

Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant found that Virginia is not bound by the terms of covenants dating from 1870 and 1890, in which the state agreed to forever protect the statue.

Northam (D) ordered the monument on state-owned land removed in June, as the statue became a focus of social justice protests in the onetime capital of the Confederacy. But before the work could commence, one person sued to stop it and a judge issued an injunction tying the governor’s hands. That case was later dismissed, but a group of residents living on or near Monument Avenue soon brought their own suit and the injunction was continued.

“The Lee monument was built to celebrate the Confederacy and uphold white supremacy,” Northam said in a statement after the ruling. “This victory moves Virginia forward in removing this relic of the past — one that was erected for all the wrong reasons.”

Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), whose office represented Northam in the case, said the statue “does not represent who we have become as Virginians and it sends the wrong message to the rest of the world that we continue to venerate an individual who fought to maintain the enslavement of human beings.”

Lawyer Patrick McSweeney, who represents the residents who brought the case, said they will appeal.

“Obviously we think he got it wrong,” he said, referring to Marchant. The group has 30 days to file a notice of appeal.

In the suit, the residents contended that the state had promised to “affectionately protect” the monument when it accepted the donation of the bronze equestrian statue, its stone pedestal and the land where they sit.

But Marchant found that the covenants were no longer enforceable.

“The Virginia Supreme Court has long held that in order to enforce deed restrictive covenants, such enforcement must not be contrary to public policy, nor should conditions have so radically changed as to practically destroy the original purposes of the covenant,” Marchant wrote.

In his order, Marchant recounted testimony from historians Ed Ayers and Kevin Gaines, who appeared as expert witnesses for the state at the one-day trial on Oct. 19.

“Their testimony described a post-war South where the white citizenry wanted to impose and state unapologetically their continued belief in the validity and honor of their ‘Lost Cause,’ and thereby vindicate their way of life and their former Confederacy,” Marchant wrote. “It was out of this backdrop that the erection of the Lee Monument took place.”

Marchant noted that Gaines also testified that “today the monument stands as a contradiction to present societal values.”

But Marchant wrote that “perhaps the most significant evidence” was the state budget bill passed by the legislature in special session on Oct. 16, just three days before the trial. Tucked inside the dense, two-year spending plan was language stating that the Department of General Services, at the direction of the governor, “shall remove and store the Robert E. Lee Monument or any part thereof.”

The language also repealed the 1889 legislation that promised to hold the statue “sacred to the monumental purpose to which it had been devoted.”

During the trial, McSweeney contended that the budget language was “special legislation,” meaning an improper law aimed at helping or excluding one particular group or interest. He also noted that Northam had not yet signed the bill into law.

But Marchant said passage by the state House and Senate was enough to indicate that public policy toward the monument had changed.

The 60-foot Lee monument, erected in 1890, is the oldest and largest of the five Confederate figures that gave Richmond’s grandest residential boulevard its name. The Monument Avenue figures became a focal point for protests that erupted in Richmond — like other cities around the country — after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Demonstrators gathering at the base of the graffiti-splashed Lee celebrated in June when word went out that Northam announced plans to remove the statue, the only one of the five on state property. And they were angry after the judge originally assigned to the case, who later recused himself because he lives in the Monument Avenue historic district, issued his injunction against the removal.

A week later, protesters pulled down the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on the avenue, along with smaller monuments in other parts of town.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, invoking emergency powers, ordered the removal of the other Monument Avenue statues on city property, which paid tribute to Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart and Matthew Fontaine Maury.

That has left Lee, at least for now, as the only monument remaining on the avenue.