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Earthquake prediction is a famously inexact science, but it’s easy to see this one coming. By year-end, an all-star team of lawyers calling themselves the “Reparations Coordinating Committee” plans to file a suit seeking reparations for slavery. The legal merits of the case are unknown, but the tremors will no doubt be felt far and wide. The group faces problems that seem insurmountable. Slavery ended in 1865. Who are the plaintiffs? The defendants? And if the group wins, by some miracle, what will the damages be? An A-list of lawyers and academics, led by Charles Ogletree Jr., of Harvard Law School and Randall Robinson, of TransAfrica Forum, an African-American policy group, is trying to answer those questions. No final decisions have been made, and they’re being tight-lipped about their work, but a few particulars are beginning to emerge. Multiple cases in multiple forums are likely. The defendants will come from both the public and private sectors. And the remedy will be aimed at institutions, not individuals. The litigation side of the group includes J.L. Chestnutt Jr., a civil rights lawyer and activist from Selma, Ala., who represented Martin Luther King Jr.; Alexander Pires Jr., of Conlon, Frantz, Phelan & Pires in Washington, D.C., who worked with Chestnutt in winning a billion-dollar settlement for black farmers discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Stanley Chesley, the king of mass tort litigation from Cincinnati’s Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley, who represented Holocaust survivors in a reparations suit; the enormously successful trial attorney Willie Gary of Stuart, Fla.; and the ubiquitous Johnnie Cochran. The lawyers are working closely with a group of political scientists, historians, and economists, including Cornel West of Harvard University and Manning Marable of Columbia University. The group meets every other month or so at TransAfrica’s D.C. office; smaller groups meet more frequently. Pires has written the early drafts of the complaint; Gary also is focusing on the nuts-and-bolts legal problems. Both men doubt whether clever legal arguments alone can carry the day. “There are lots of ways to get creative,” said Gary. “They could get us into court, but I don’t know if they could survive a motion to dismiss.” Help may lie in the political arena. The black farmers’ suit, for example, only moved forward after a once-in-a-lifetime alliance between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich prevailed on Congress to waive the statute-of-limitations defense. Gary would like to see similar legislation introduced before the reparations case is even filed. Congressman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the leading congressional advocate for reparations, is a likely sponsor. The group is leaning toward filing a number of suits simultaneously, all overseen by an umbrella organization. The cases against the U.S. Department of Commerce, the state of Mississippi, and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (to name three likely defendants), for example, will involve very different facts and may rely on different theories of law. Using multiple forums will simplify and streamline each case. In addition, “I don’t think we should put all our eggs into one basket,” said Chestnutt. “Some people think that a judge would be afraid to dismiss a reparations suit, but I think most judges wouldn’t be able to get rid of it fast enough.” Every black American may be affected by the legacy of slavery, but the plaintiffs may be a more select class. Chestnutt and Gary say that proving a causal link will be easier for some individuals than others. They favor limiting the size of the plaintiff class to those who most directly felt the impact of slavery, such as those who suffered under Jim Crow laws, or whose grandparents were slaves. They recognize that this strategy may alienate those who are excluded, but Gary said, “I’d rather win a case for 50 percent of the blacks in this country than lose a case filed on behalf of 100 percent.” Others in the group are leaning toward a more inclusive class, according to Chestnutt. The defendants are easier to name. They will include the federal government, states that allowed slavery (and perhaps others), and private corporations that profited from slavery. Chestnutt said that little attention has been paid to the last group, but it’s the most controversial and may pose the greatest legal difficulties. Attorney Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, whose previous work forced Aetna Inc. to apologize for issuing “slave policies” that paid owners if their slaves died or escaped, is researching the issue. She predicts that by year-end, she’ll identify about 70 corporations as potential defendants, mostly banks and insurance companies. The theory of the case isn’t set. Chestnutt favors unjust enrichment. “This is the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world, and a lot of it was built on the backs of slaves,” he said.

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