The statue of Melville Fuller, who served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, is seen Aug. 11 in front of the old Kennebec County courthouse, on the corner of State and Winthrop streets in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — For David Turner, the fate of the statue of Melville Fuller should be a simple decision.

“I don’t think we should move it,” said Turner, who now lives at the Augusta house where Fuller grew up more than 150 years ago. “I think we should destroy it and melt it down and make plumbing fittings from it. That’s my opinion on it.”

Turner was one of 16 people who spoke Tuesday at a public hearing hosted by the Kennebec County Commissioners.

The fate of the memorial to Fuller, who grew up in Augusta and went on to become chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States under President Grover Cleveland, has been debated in different circles since at least August, when the Maine Judicial Branch sent a letter to the Kennebec County Commissioners asking the statue, placed outside the Kennebec County courthouse in 2013, be moved.

Neither the statue, commissioned by Robert Fuller Jr. to be erected outside the county courthouse, nor the property on which it sits belongs to the Judicial Branch. Fuller, who is Melville Fuller’s first cousin three times removed, presented it as a gift to Kennebec County.

As chief justice, Fuller presided over a court that established the “separate but equal” doctrine that paved the way for decades of racial segregation based on Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark decision that upheld the constitutionality of segregation laws for public facilities if the segregated facilities were equal in quality.

Fuller did not write the decision but sided with a majority of justices in the case.

In a series of protests this year across the United States, thousands of people have protested violence against Black people, in some cases at the hands of police departments, through the Black Lives Matter movement.

Protests have resulted in the removal of statues of Confederate Army officers and soldiers, Christopher Columbus and many who have supported racist policies.

Acting Chief Justice Andrew Mead, writing on behalf of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, said Maine judicial officers reached a consensus the statue, in its current location, “is not consistent with our values, because the association between Chief Justice Fuller and the Plessy decision is so profound, and Maine judges do not want to be linked to that association.”

“Given our commitment to racial justice,” Mead wrote, “we should take every opportunity to examine and re-examine our positions, policies and practices. We believe that the statue should not continue to be the monument that members of the public see as they approach the courthouse.”

Tuesday’s public hearing arose from that letter and the desire for a communitywide conversation outlined in Mead’s letter.

Steve Smith, a lawyer representing Fuller, urged people view Melville Fuller not by current standards, but by the standards of his time.

“The problem that I see is that our country, indeed any history,  is composed of a tapestry of heroes and villains, but mostly people in between striving to do their level best,” Smith said.

“I think from (Fuller’s) perspective, the Plessy decision was, in fact, a progressive position. We don’t see it as such today, but the idea that Black Americans could be seen as equal was in that time a progressive stance.”

A statue of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Melville Fuller, photographed Sept. 12, at the old Kennebec County Courthouse in Augusta. Protesters said that they did not put the stickers on Fuller’s forehead. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file Buy this Photo

Israel Moses took a different position.

“So I’m going to try to not be the angry Black person in this meeting, but that’s going to be kind of difficult,” he said. “I have living relatives who lived through segregation and racial terror and state violence, because that is the actual outcome of Melville Fuller’s decision on that court.

“It’s not even just segregation. That’s the craziness about this entire conversation right now.”

Moses said the fallout has been in police overreach and the racial wealth gap that exists today, long after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Plessy decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

“You don’t need a statue to learn these lessons,” Moses said. “You just got to listen to the people who have experienced them on a regular basis. It doesn’t take anything extra to learn about any of this.”

Moses’ condemnation of the statue was shared by Michael Alpert, who was acting as spokesperson for the Maine branches of the NAACP.

“That single court case did more harm, did more to harm America than any other Supreme Court ruling,” he said in making the case for the statue’s removal. “Since the country’s founding, many of us are familiar with the aftermath of the Plessy decision: Daily humiliation, segregation, lynchings, lack of voting rights, denial of decent education and adequate housing and fair employment and proper health facilities.”

Leah Baldacci, a Maine lawyer and investigations counsel for the conservative Legal Insurrection Foundation, said Fuller’s legacy exists in his management of the justices and collegial traditions he established, including having justices shake hands when they meet. The statue, she said, is a reminder that checks and balances exist.

“It is important that we look at the statue and think, ‘How can this be interpreted?'” Baldacci said.

She said the statue should be viewed “not just through the lens of racism, but through the lens of what makes America great, which is our system of checks and balances, and the fact that the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, was willing to overturn precedent, as it did in a Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.”

Baldacci said the issue is being raised now, seven years after the statue was erected, because the Maine State Bar is being “heavily charged” with trainings and rhetoric surrounding critical race theory. Through her work at the Legal Insurrection Foundation, she said she is researching the theory and what she says are its Marxist foundations.

Several speakers, including Augusta City Councilor Linda Conti, who said she was speaking on her own behalf, suggested the statue could be moved to another site, perhaps the Kennebec County Historical Society, where people go to research history.

Another suggestion called for moving the statue to the Maine State Museum, or adding a plaque to offer some context on Fuller’s career.

In his own comments, Robert Fuller Jr. said under Fuller’s leadership, the U.S. Supreme Court became a crucially activist court and an equal partner with the Executive and Legislative branches, and highlighted Fuller’s legacy in other decisions on which he presided, including a finding that property rights rendered to Native Americans could not be overridden by an act of Congress.

Fuller thanked the commissioners for conducting the hearing, and applauded those who participated in the event, thus exercising their First Amendment rights.

In addition to the testimony given Tuesday, the commissioners said they will accept written comments through Dec. 10. After that, the commissioners will decide during a regular meeting whether the statue will be moved.

County Administrator Robert Devlin said a date for that discussion had yet to be set.

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