African American News and Genealogy

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Friday, July 15, 2005

Reparations suit dismissed again

By Rudolph BushTribune staff reporterPublished July 6, 2005, 8:55 PM CDT A federal judge dismissed a wide-ranging reparations lawsuit brought by descendants of slaves, concluding Wednesday that the courts are not the place to correct centuries-old wrongs inflicted on millions of people.U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle's ruling all but closed the door on the reparations movement's most aggressive and wide-ranging effort to date to win compensation through the courts, narrowing future legal options and pushing the debate toward the political arena.But supporters of the reparations cause said it only increased their determination."In the scope of how these things go, it's something you deal with," said Roger Wareham, a Brooklyn attorney and reparations activist who represented two plaintiffs in the case. "We see this as the groundwork."The lawsuit was a combination of several separate cases brought by descendants of slaves seeking monetary damages from modern-day corporations with historical ties to businesses the plaintiffs said had profited from slavery. Eventually the suit named 17 major corporations as defendants, with 19 plaintiffs.Norgle first dismissed the suit in 2004 but permitted the plaintiffs to file an amended version.Wednesday's dismissal is final, however, and can only be appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the plaintiffs will have much narrower avenues to revive their case. That appeal will come soon, plaintiffs' attorneys said.Although the defendants amended parts of their original complaint, Norgle concluded the new version wasn't materially different, and his ruling largely tracked with his earlier decision.He noted again that the defendants had no standing to bring claims for damages that occurred as a result of slavery, that several statutes of limitations had run out, and that plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a specific connection between themselves and the defendants.The plaintiffs, who come from across the country, included not only descendants of slaves, but also living individuals who claimed to be actual slaves as late as the mid-20th Century.Among them was a 104-year-old Louisiana man who the suit contended lived with his family in a slave hut as late as the 1960s.Such an inclusion was important, as the court insisted the plaintiffs show they incurred direct injuries as a result of slavery.The Louisiana man's presence in the suit did not alter the outcome, however, as Norgle ruled plaintiffs "fail to allege they were enslaved by any of the named defendants."The plaintiffs alleged that the companies--including such well-known brands as Aetna Insurance, Brown and Williamson Tobacco, CSX and Lehman Brothers--once profited unjustly from the slave trade.Those corporations requested the case be dismissed on several grounds, among them that the plaintiffs couldn't cite specific personal damages connected to the companies.Norgle's 104-page ruling agreed largely with the corporations' arguments, said Andrew McGaan, who represents Brown and Williamson and was the lead defense attorney in the case.The exhaustive ruling tracked the history of the American slave trade, the nation's descent into the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the enduring pain of slavery's legacy and the ongoing reparations movement."It is beyond doubt that slavery has caused tremendous suffering and ineliminable scars throughout our nation's history," Norgle wrote. "No reasonable person can fail to recognize the malignant impact, in body and spirit, on the millions of human beings held as slaves in the United States."But the claims of the plaintiffs "are beyond the constitutional authority of this court," he wrote.The issue of reparations "has been historically and constitutionally committed to the legislative and executive branches of our government," he wrote. Neither side in the dispute was surprised by the ruling. Evanston attorney Lionel Jean-Baptiste, who represented two Illinois descendants of slaves, said that Norgle was always expected to "maintain the status quo."While the reparations movement has earned considerable publicity in recent years, some question whether such legal battles are a wise or effective course.Jeremy Levitt, a law professor at Florida International University who has written about reparations, said the courts are not equipped to deal with the question of slave reparations."There are just too many legal barriers for a successful claim to be mounted," he said. "The most viable venue would have to be the U.S. legislative branch."Wareham said that legal and political battles must go hand in hand, however."They work together; they can't be seen as separate," he said. "We see that the cases we have filed have helped push the movement, and the movement has helped advance the cases."


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