U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Norgle Sr. ruled plaintiffs in a suit seeking reparations from 19 corporations had failed to directly link the defendants to slavery and profits from the slave trade.
In a 75-page opinion released Monday, Norgle said the suit, one of nine originally filed in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Louisiana and Illinois and consolidated in a class-action complaint in Chicago in 2002, went beyond the authority of the court and that the statue of limitation for any crimes had long since passed.
"In summary, plaintiffs' attempt to bring these claims more than a century after the end of the Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery fails," Norgle wrote. "This determination is consistent with the position taken by numerous courts which have considered the issue of the last century."
The issue of reparations, Norgle said, historically had been addressed by the legislative or the executive branch of government, not in the courts.
A bill calling for congressional hearings on reparations introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in 1989 has never made it out of committee. The Conyers bill has about 30 co-sponsors.
Opponents of reparations said the decision keeps present-day of Americans from being held accountable for the crimes of their ancestors,
"We cannot expect today's generation to repair damages inflicted by people six generations past," said an editorial on Virginia-based collegiatetimes.com. "A man sentenced to 20 years in prison cannot serve 10 and pass the rest to his children."
That reasoning ignores historic precedent of reparations paid by Germany to victims of the Nazi Holocaust, including Jews, slave laborers and their families, and reparations of $20,000 each to Japanese-Americans interred in the United States during World War II paid under a 1988 law signed by President Ronald Reagan.
Two Swiss banks accused of looting accounts of Holocaust victims reached a settlement with the victims and their survivors the same year.
Norgle acknowledged "the historic injustices and immorality" of 250 years of chattel slavery in nearly 10 pages of the opinion. He dismissed the suit "without prejudice" leaving open the possibility of plaintiffs filing an amended suit.
"The immorality of the institution of slavery is obvious," the judge wrote.
The class-action did not seek specific damages. It asked "companies to provide a full accounting of their slave history and an independent commission to review claims."
Norgle said the plaintiffs failed to allege in the suit that their ancestors were enslaved by any of the defendants: FleetBoston Financial Corp., railroad giant CSX Corp., Aetna Inc., Brother Brothers Harriman, New York Life Insurance Co., Norfolk Southern Corp., Lehman Brothers, Lloyd's of London, Union Pacific Railroad, JP Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank, Westpoint Stevens Inc., RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co., Brown and Williamson, Liggett Group Inc., Loews Corp., Canadian National Railway, Southern Mutual Insurance Co. and American International Group.
"It's a technicality," said attorney Lionel Jean-Baptiste, an Evanston, Ill., city council member, representing two plaintiffs. "There is no finality to this," he said. "It's not doomsday."
The suit argued the companies had supported slavery through transport, insurance or banking and were liable for "past or continued wrongful conduct."
Plaintiffs said the defendants participated in a conspiracy to further the "crime against humanity" of slavery and misappropriated the value of the slaves' labor. The corporations, they argue, had "third-party liability" for exploiting slaves and that the corporations -- with interests including textiles, transportation, finance, insurance -- were enriched by slave labor.
The suit further said African-Americans continued to suffer inequities from centuries of slavery and were more likely to have shorter life spans, higher unemployment, and experience increased rates of incarceration, homicide and crime.
Jean-Baptiste said the suit would be redrafted before a Feb. 8 status hearing. Reparations movement leaders said the case could be appealed through federal appellate courts if that failed.
Plaintiffs had accused Norgle of bias but he refused to remove himself from the case in a separate decision also issued Monday. At one point the judge walked out of the Dirksen Federal Building courtroom as attorneys called him back to the bench.
Conrad Worrill, professor of education and history at Northeastern Illinois University and chairman of the National Black United Front, told a crowd history was being made no matter what the judge ruled.
What form would reparations take? Reparations go way beyond a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission to hear testimony on crimes committed during apartheid.
Critics say administering a reparations award would be impossible and that more money would be spent on paperwork and resolving individual claims than the amount received by plaintiffs.
Some reparations proponents suggest any funds be placed in a trust for education and healthcare in African-American communities.
Others ask whether all African-Americans who had enslaved ancestors should benefit from a self-help trust, or would it be need-based with the largest share going to poor or distressed black communities.