When you read about the boomlet in lawsuits demanding reparations for slavery, it’s natural to wonder: whatever happened to the statute of limitations? As the press has announced with some fanfare, many civil rights activists would like courts to hold modern-day businesses liable for transactions that 1) took place nearly 150 years ago; 2) were accepted as legal at the time; and 3) were then left undisturbed by the comprehensive political settlement that followed the Civil War. But if legal claims like these aren’t obsolete, what claims ever are? In fact, if we pursued the logic of reparations in any thoroughgoing way, the ownership of much of the nation’s real estate would be in doubt: most housing stock in cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Memphis, for example, sits on land that slaves once worked and that their descendants might wish to reclaim. Even if this property weren’t ultimately confiscated as reparations, to subject its ownership to years of legal uncertainty would gravely burden innocent purchasers and inheritors, who’ve long acted under the assumption of unchallenged title. Our courts would never make themselves the instruments of such injustice and social divisiveness—would they?

Don’t be so sure. Until recently, it’s true, all civilized legal systems seemed to agree on the principle embodied in the statute of limitations: that the civil law must view grievances not pressed in a prompt way as laid to rest. But over the last 25 years or so, lawyers have enjoyed unprecedented success in persuading American courts to relax time limits on the right to sue, with occasionally dramatic results. Just ask the residents of western New York towns like Chittenango, Seneca Falls, and Springport, where as many as 90,000 upstate landowners, joining many others in Connecticut and other states, have seen the titles to their properties clouded by the revival of Indian land claims once thought extinguished in the earliest years of the republic. Yet though these landowners have compelling stories to tell—they include, for example, farmers unable to clear title to land that has been in their family for two centuries—few of our elite legal institutions seem much interested in their plight. The Indian land-claims debacle offers a sobering preview of the havoc that slave-reparations claims might soon visit on American society as a whole.

The idea of going back nearly two centuries later and declaring all these sales invalid was almost unthinkably audacious. All the relevant federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, recognized them as ratified by custom and practice. Nothing suggested that the tribes had been under duress at the time, had been anything other than eager to sell the land, or had received less than due value for it. And the tracts in question were vast. In Maine, they encompassed two-thirds of the state, on which 350,000 people now live, and in New York, large swaths of the western part of the state, from the Finger Lakes to the shores of Lake Erie.

Edited by kyle585 (02/23/14 07:33 PM)