CHICAGO — A federal judge on Monday 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 they targeted.
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 as defendants.
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 social programs.
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 for slavery.
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.”
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