Judge Dismisses Slave
By MIKE ROBINSON, Associated Press Writer
A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by descendants
of slaves against corporations they say profited from slavery,
saying the plaintiffs had established no clear link to the companies
The court still left the door open for further litigation.
"Plaintiffs' attempt to bring these claims more than a century
after the end of the Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery
fails," U.S. District Judge Charles R. Norgle said.
He said the plaintiffs' claims "are beyond the constitutional
authority of this court." And he said the suit alleged no
specific connection between the plaintiffs and the companies named
But the ruling dismissed the case "without prejudice,"
meaning the slave descendants seeking reparations from U.S. companies
are allowed to file an amended complaint.
Lionel Jean-Baptiste, a lawyer representing two women who are
descendants of slaves, said he expected to do exactly that.
"I had an expectation that this would happen," Jean-Baptiste
said after Norgle released his 75-page opinion.
The lawsuit was first filed in U.S. District Court in New York
in 2002 and later moved to Chicago. The suit names companies like
the Lehman Brothers brokerage firm, Aetna Insurance and R.J. Reynolds
Tobacco, saying they or their corporate ancestors made money off
slavery. Lawsuits filed around the country seeking reparations
for slavery have been combined into a single court action.
In his opinion, Norgle acknowledged "the historic injustices
and the immorality of the institution of human chattel slavery
in the United States."
But he said longstanding doctrine in matters involving political
questions "bars the court from deciding the issue of slavery
reparations, an issue that has been historically and constitutionally
committed to the legislative and executive branches of our government."
As for the timing, he said the plaintiffs had failed to show how
the wrongs cited in the lawsuit fall within the statute of limitations.
"Some may view this ruling as a condonation of ancient wrongs,"
Norgle said. "That view is wrong. 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."
Jean-Baptiste had said that if the plaintiffs won their lawsuit,
they would set up a trust fund to help the black community support
Andrew McGaan, an attorney representing Brown & Williamson
Tobacco Corp., one of the defendants, said he was "not surprised
at all that the court decided to dismiss."
He said the judge had agreed "with what appears to be every
ground that we raised."
But supporters of the lawsuit told a news conference after the
decision that they did not see it as a defeat so much as a step
along the way in a broader movement aimed at obtaining reparations
Richard E. Barber of Somerset, N.J., said he was the grandson
of slaves and had grown up on a North Carolina tobacco farm.
"We are here on behalf of all of those enslaved Africans
who worked for 240 years without a payday," Barber said.
He said there are people in America "who have trust funds
built on the backs of slaves. Time to pay up."