Reparations: Black Judge Flees!

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When I contacted Judge Williams’ chambers requesting to speak with her about her impromptu vanishing from the Reparations hearing a staff member responded, “Judge Williams has no comment on the reparations case,� and quickly hung up.

(Why would a Black judge “recuse� herself from such a historic case?

The lone Black Judge who sat on a panel of three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals 7th Circuit selected to hear oral arguments in the historic corporate slavery reparations case has "recused" herself.

Judge Ann Claire Williams had participated in hearing all the cases on the Circuit docket that Wednesday morning of September 27, 2006. However, when the Reparations case started, she was suddenly replaced. Her absence from the landmark lawsuit against 14 blue chip U.S. corporations including J. P. Morgan Chase, Fleet Bank, and Aetna Insurance Corporation was not explained at that time.

Subsequently, three right-wing, conservative, white male jurists heard litigation on the case of Reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States. Judge William’s disappearance did not go unnoticed by plaintiffs’ lawyers and the standing-room-only crowd over flowing into the corridors of the courthouse, bearing witness to the extraordinary proceedings.

One attorney for the plaintiffs, Roger Wareham, opened with a preliminary argument. “We're making a motion to recuse the panel. Because the sole African American Judge on the panel is no longer here. Given the nature of this issue and who our clients are, we're asking that the panel recuse itself. My co-counsel, Mr. Afran, has had a very detailed discussion with the clerk’s office and is unable to get any explanation, in lieu of that we're asking for the panel to recuse itself,� he said.
 
Judge Frank Easterbrook responded by stating, “You can file a motion of recusal if you'd like, we will give you 10 days to file. O. K.?� The hearing then proceeded without Judge Williams. The principal argument from the plaintiffs was the stonewalling of the conservative US District Court Judge Charles Norgle, who dismissed the case without allowing for pretrial procedures to be fulfilled. Norgle’s decision argued that the case had no standing, citing the statute of limitations and would not allow for equitable tolling.

Equitable tolling is a principle of tort law stating that a statute of limitations shall not bar a claim in cases where the plaintiff, despite use of due diligence, could not or did not discover the injury until after the expiration of the limitations period.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys Roger Wareham, Bruce Afran, and Barbara Ratliff argued that Judge Norgle hastily dismissed the case without a proper hearing of the facts and discovery disclosures. They laid out a detailed case history and the history of racism in the U.S. before and after the era of slavery and forced illiteracy including the Reconstruction period, peonage, rampant lynching, Jim Crow laws, Klu Klux Klan terrorism, and the civil rights struggle. They explained that this history obstructed African peoples’ ability to exact legal redress for repair and demands equitable tolling dating well after the civil rights movement.

Corporation defense attorneys Alan Madans and Owen Pell maintained their position that the case failed to prove a direct connection between the defendants and the plaintiffs and that the case was brought too late. If the plaintiffs’ motion to recuse the panel is not granted, Court of Appeals judges Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner, Daniel Manion will deliberate the arguments and issue their ruling at a later date.

When I contacted Judge Williams’ chambers requesting to speak with her about her impromptu vanishing from the hearing a staff member responded, “Judge Williams has no comment on the reparations case,� and quickly hung up. I then contacted Circuit Court Clerk Gino Agnello and asked him why Judge Williams did not remain to hear the oral arguments on the slavery reparations case. “Because Judge Williams recused herself,� Agnello answered. 

Judge Williams was appointed to the US District Court Northern District of Illinois by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. That appointment was followed by her appointment to the United States Court of Appeals 7th Circuit by President Bill Clinton in 1999. In 2005, Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed her to a three-year term on the U.S. Supreme Court Fellows Commission. William’s published bio extols a long history of legal advocacy for minorities. She co-founded the Minority Legal Education Resources organization.  

William’s prominent legal stature dictates a full understanding of the law and the historic precedent of this slavery reparations lawsuit against U.S. corporations. Yet she chose to recuse herself from this significant case in Black legislative history, a case on par with Brown vs. the Board of Education. Why? She must answer this question - soon. 

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