Judge rejects lawsuit seeking reparations

(The following story by James Cox appeared on the USA Today website on January 26.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A federal judge in Chicago on Monday dealt a blow to the reparations movement by dismissing a lawsuit against 18 banks, insurers, railroads and tobacco companies that African-Americans say profited from slavery.

The plaintiffs were "trying to assert the legal rights of their ancestors" without proving they had been injured by any of the companies they sued, said U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle.

Norgle said the plaintiffs could file an amended lawsuit after reviewing his opinion but gave them little reason for optimism. Courts lack the constitutional authority to decide the question of reparations for slavery, which should be left to Congress, he said.

Norgle also said the statute of limitations had run out on crimes committed during the slave era, ended in 1865.

The plaintiffs, dozens of African-Americans who said they are descendants of slaves, demanded compensation from big-name corporations but never put a dollar amount on their claims.

They argued companies should put profits from slavery, plus money that should have gone to pay slaves, into a trust to benefit African-Americans.

Defendants included banks J.P. Morgan Chase and FleetBoston; insurers New York Life, Aetna and AIG; investment banks Lehman Bros. and Brown Bros. Harriman; railroads CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific; cigarette makers Brown & Williamson, Loews and Liggett Group.

The lawsuit has helped spark a revival of interest in the issue of financial restitution for slavery. The issue has been the subject of intense debate on college campuses, at legal seminars and in the media.

The plaintiffs tried to get Norgle to step aside in the case, arguing that he was anti-plaintiff and had a conflict of interest because he once worked for a Chicago bank bought by J.P. Morgan Chase. He denied the motion Monday.

Roger Wareham, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said they will file an amended lawsuit in coming weeks and appeal if Norgle dismisses the lawsuit again.

But Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a legal researcher who was lead plaintiff, said reparations advocates will start using other tactics to pressure companies accused of profiting from slavery. "The next stages will include boycotts and ads in university (newspapers) and major press."

The dismissal brought a subdued reaction from some defendants. Spokesmen for New York Life and Aetna said their companies deplored slavery but wanted to be judged by the way they treat African-American employees and customers today.

Norgle, in his opinion, said he was not condoning the "historic injustices and immorality" of slavery. "To suggest that the lions have won again and that the court is impervious to the human suffering at the core of this case would be absurd," he wrote.

Tuesday, January 27, 2004


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