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Wrong way to right wrongs



Published: Thu, July 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Chicago Tribune: Federal courts have been integral to much of the progress of the civil rights movement, issuing landmark rulings to ban entrenched discrimination in schools, jobs, housing and at the polls. The common denominator in those decisions was that they came in lawsuits brought by plaintiffs able to demonstrate how they had been personally harmed by the actions of a school board, company, university, landlord, poll tax or the like.

The wide-ranging slavery reparations lawsuit dismissed for the second time Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle was a broad deviation from the formula that has helped minorities successfully battle injustice. It was a legal stretch, and Norgle acted prudently in recognizing that.

Brought by descendants of slaves, the class-action suit sought damages from a range of banking, insurance, tobacco and textile companies for the profits that predecessor firms made off the suffering of slave laborers before the end of the Civil War.

Pain of slavery

Norgle went to great lengths in his 104-page opinion to acknowledge the pain of slavery and the nation's halting and imperfect efforts since its elimination to battle a lingering legacy of racism and inequality. "It is beyond debate that slavery has caused tremendous suffering and ineliminable scars throughout our Nation's history," he wrote. "No reasonable person can fail to recognize the malignant impact, in body and spirit, on the millions of human beings held as slaves in the United States."

That said, Norgle found the lawsuit lacked the ingredient that proved crucial in other civil rights actions. There was nothing analogous to a student who could claim she had been barred from a schoolhouse door because of the color of her skin, or a worker who could demonstrate he had lost a job for the same reason. Courts simply aren't empowered or equipped to dispense compensation to people who themselves didn't directly suffer harm from wrongs committed long ago, Norgle found.

His decision was hardly a shock. Norgle telegraphed the same objections when he dismissed the suit more than a year ago, but gave the plaintiffs a chance to amend their complaint with evidence of how they had personally been harmed. They refiled but still couldn't meet that test.

Norgle's ruling is a significant setback for reparations advocates, but they vowed to press on and some predicted it would increase pressure on Congress to act on their demands. That is debatable, but at least Congress is a more appropriate venue for the question.




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