CHICAGO — A federal judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit brought by descendants of slaves against corporations they contend 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 that the lawsuit claimed 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 American 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,” Mr. Jean-Baptiste said after Judge 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 lawsuit names companies such as the Lehman Brothers brokerage firm, Aetna Insurance and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, saying they or their corporate ancestors made money off slavery. Lawsuits filed across the country seeking reparations for slavery have been combined into a single court action.
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.”
In his opinion, Judge Norgle acknowledged “the historic injustices and the immorality of the institution of human chattel slavery in the United States.”
But he said long-standing 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,” Judge 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.”