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.
The suit named as defendants a number of major corporations which allegedly directly or through their predecessors in interest profited from or supported African enslavement in America.
I read the court's opinion [you can read it yourself, all 103 pages, right here], and here's my reaction.
The court got it right, for both legal and policy reasons.
First, it is important to note that the court recognizes the moral illegitimacy of the system of human servitude that existed for more than two hundred years in America. The question is whether the courts are the proper facilities for a remedy, if one there be at this late date.
Judge Norgle adheres to otherwise neutral precedent of long standing to hold that: (1) the plaintiffs, like all litigants, are barred from making claims of absent third parties, without themselves having suffered some injury; (2) the plaintiffs have a generalized grievance best addressed by Congress; (3) the claims are barred by the statute of limitations.
Judge Norgle is not a "racist," as one activist predictably alleged [Conrad Worrill, Chicago Sun-Times, July 7, 2005]. His decision is extraordinarily well-written and well-balanced.
IOU? [or maybe U O Me?]
Perhaps I owe me. Like a lot of Americans, I have black ancestors, some whom were presumably enslaved, and I have white ancestors who I know to have been slaveowners. My ancestors, like those of many, many Americans, include soldiers who fought on both sides of the Civil War. But in the present generation, my white cousins and my black cousins all plainly have benefited from what America is today.
Judge Norgle's concluding words are worth reprinting here:
The ultimate objectives, the preservation of the Union and the eradication of slavery, were accomplished. The "yoke of bondage" was removed . . . . The freed slaves then began another journey, this time not from captivity to slavery, but from slavery to citizenship and equality under the law. All of the participants had endured great suffering in this momentous conflict. It takes little imagination to understand the tremendous disruption and destabilization the Civil War caused America's existing social and political institutions. And yet, the dark clouds following the War were giving way to a future brighter than the great majority could have imagined in 1865. The extremely difficult task of amending the Constitution three times was accomplished in approximately five years, granting former slaves freedom, citizenship, and the right to vote. The citizens of the Union would move onward to meet the challenge made by President Lincoln on March 4, 1865, "to achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations." . . . This is historically manifested in the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the enactment of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and the promulgation of over a century of civil rights legislation and governmental programs. The sensitive ear has heard the collective "thank you" from those who were freed, as well as the historic apologies in words and deeds from persons of good will for the evils of slavery.
Okay. 'Nuff said. Let's all move on.