Professor LeoGrande’s Argument Against U.S. Litigation Over Cuban Expropriated Property

Senator Patrick Leahy in his lengthy February 15 speech on the Senate floor, which was repeated in a prior post, had appended to his remarks an article about Cuba by a noted U.S. expert on the country, Professor William L. LeoGrande of American University. Here is the text of that article, “President Trump Risks Alienating Allies Over Cuban American Property Claims” from OnCubaNews (2/13/19).

“The Trump administration is seriously considering whether to allow Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (Helms-Burton) to go into effect in March, according to National Security Adviser John Bolton. On January 16, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he was suspending Title III for just 45 days instead of the usual six months while the administration reviews whether its implementation would promote democracy in Cuba. He warned foreign companies doing business on the island that they had better ‘reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship.’”

“Title III allows U.S. nationals to file suit in U.S. courts against anyone ‘trafficking’ in their confiscated property in Cuba—that is, anyone profiting from it. If President Trump allows Title III to go fully into effect, he will open the door to as many as 200,000 law suits by U.S. nationals, most of them Cuban Americans, whose property was taken by the Cuban government after 1959. U.S. courts would be swamped, the ability of U.S. companies to do business on the island would be crippled, and allies abroad might retaliate for U.S. suits brought against their companies in Cuba. Once the suits have been filed, there will be no way to undo the resulting legal chaos and the tangle of resulting litigation could take years to unwind.”

“The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified 5,913 claims of U.S. nationals whose property was seized. These are the claims that Cuba recognizes and that the United States and Cuba had begun to discuss during the Obama administration. But Title III takes the unusual position of allowing naturalized Cuban Americans who lost property to also file suit against alleged traffickers. Normally, international law recognizes the sovereign right of governments to dispose of the property of their own citizens. According to the Department of State, by including Cuban Americans who were not U.S. citizens when their property was taken, Title III creates the potential for an estimated 75,000-200,000 claims worth ‘tens of billions of dollars.’”

“Back in 1996, when the law was being debated in Congress, angry opposition from U.S. allies Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, whose companies doing business in Cuba would be the targets of Title III law suits, led President Bill Clinton to insist on a presidential waiver provision in Title III. As a result, the president has the authority to suspend for six months the right to file Title III law suits, and he can renew that suspension indefinitely. Every six months since the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act was passed, successive presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have continued the suspension of Title III.”

“U.S. allies have denounced Title III’s extraterritorial reach. Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union all passed laws prohibiting compliance with it. The European Union also filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, which it did not pursue after President Clinton suspended Title III. In fact, the principal justification both President Clinton and President George W. Bush offered for continuing the suspension was the need to maintain cooperation with European allies.”

“If President Trump does not renew the suspension, all these old wounds with allies will be reopened as U.S. claimants try to haul foreign companies into U.S. courts for doing business in Cuba. We already have enough tough issues on our agenda with Mexico, Canada, and Europe without adding another one. At this very moment, Washington is trying to muster their support in dealing with the Venezuelan crisis, support that could be endangered if the administration picks a fight with them over Title III.”

“U.S. businesses would not be exempt from potential liability. A Cuban American family in Miami claims to have owned the land on which José Martí International Airport was built, so any U.S. carrier using the air field could conceivably be sued under Title III. Another family that owned the Port of Santiago could file suit against U.S. cruise ships docking there.”

“Moreover, it would be almost impossible for a U.S. or foreign company to know in advance whether a proposed business opportunity in Cuba might become the subject of Title III litigation. “This will effectively end for decades any attempt to restore trade between the U.S. and Cuba,” attorney Robert Muse told the Tampa Bay Times.”

“When President Trump announced new sanctions on Cuba back in June 2017, senior administration officials said they were designed “to not disrupt existing business” that U.S. companies were doing in Cuba. If the president fails to continue the suspension of Title III, business relations will be disrupted far more severely and irreparably than they would be by any regulatory change.”

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Leahy, Statement of Senator Leahy On the Freedom To Export To Cuba Act (Feb. 15, 2019); LeoGrande, Trump and Cuban-American property claims, OnCubaNews (Feb. 11, 2019). See also President Trump Considering Another Hostile Action Against Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 18, 2019); Update on Trump Administration’s Threat To Allow U.S. Litigation Over Cuba’s Expropriated Property, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 30, 2019).

Senator Leahy’s Senate Floor Speech To End Embargo of Cuba

As mentioned in a prior post, on February 7, Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) introduced the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (S.428) with cosponsors Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Michael Enzi (Rep., WY)./

On February 15, Senator Leahy delivered a lengthy and persuasive speech on the Senate floor supporting this bill and ending the embargo. Here is the text of that speech.

After commending Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) for introducing this bill and urging other Senators to support the bill,, Senator Leahy said, “This bill is about ending the anachronistic prohibitions in U.S. law that for decades have limited U.S. engagement with Cuba, including preventing American companies from exporting their products to Cuba.  The fact that legislation to do so is even necessary is illustrative of the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves.  Companies from Europe, Russia, China, Mexico, and every other country can sell their products to Cuba, which is just 90 miles from our coast, but American manufacturers and retailers are largely shut out of the Cuban market. . . . This bill would enable American companies to compete, which every believer in a free market should support.”

“It is also important for Senators to know that punitive actions by the Trump Administration last year to further restrict the right of Americans to travel to Cuba have had devastating consequences for Cuba’s fledgling private sector – the very people the White House and supporters of the restrictions profess to want to help.  The fact that they have said nothing about the harm they are causing Cuba’s struggling entrepreneurs demonstrates that they care more about continuing their failed policy of sanctions, regardless of who they hurt, than about helping the Cuban people or about protecting the right of Americans to travel freely.” 

“The latest ill-conceived attempt by the White House to punish Cuba would permit Title III of the Helms-Burton Act to go into effect.  This would allow, among others, individuals who were Cuban citizens when their property in Cuba was expropriated half a century ago to sue in U.S. courts any Cuban, foreign, and even American company whose business in Cuba today uses that property.  That could be an airport, port, warehouse, hotel, restaurant, you name it.  Virtually every American and foreign company investing in Cuba would suddenly be liable for treble damages.”

“The purpose, as the law’s authors made clear when it was enacted 23 years ago, is to harm Cuba’s economy by making it completely inhospitable for foreign investment.”

“As my friend in the House, Representative Jim McGovern (Dem., MA), has pointed out –

  • ‘It’s no mystery why Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump blocked Title III from going into effect every six months for the past 23 years.’
  • ‘It is hypocritical – it penalizes companies for doing what American companies do all over the world.’
  • It is contrary to international law, which recognizes the right of expropriation and requires compensation.’
  • ‘It is an extraterritorial sanction that guarantees a response from our trading partners, like Canada, Spain and the EU, including complaints at the World Trade Organization.’
  • ‘And if you care about agriculture, be warned: It will open a new front in the trade war, with all the repercussions that can bring.’
  • ‘It will allow Cuba to claim victim status and rally international support.’
  • ‘It will clog our courts with lawsuits.’
  • ‘It will make it impossible to negotiate compensation for U.S. claims in Cuba, and, in the end, hurt the very Americans who seek compensation for the property they lost.’
  • ‘It will divide us from friends and allies who are now working for a peaceful solution in Venezuela.’
  • ‘And it will guarantee that new investment in Cuba will come from the Russians, Chinese and others who are hostile to the United States, and whose state-owned companies can’t be sued in U.S. courts.’

“I agree with my friend in the other body [Rep. McGovern].  What the White House is considering would trigger an avalanche of unintended consequences that would bring U.S. commerce with Cuba to a halt, harm relations with our allies in this hemisphere and beyond, and make resolving property claims more difficult.  I ask unanimous consent that a piece by William LeoGrande on Title III of the Helms-Burton Act published in the February 13, 2019 issue of OnCubaNews be printed in the Record following my remarks.” [This article will be published in a separate post to this blog.]

Like “many issues, Members of Congress have strong feelings pro and con about U.S. relations with Cuba.  It is no secret that, after more than half a century of a policy of isolation that has achieved none of its objectives and primarily hurt the Cuban people, I, like Senators Klobuchar and Enzi and many others in this body, favor closer relations.”

“Conversely, there are those in Congress and the Trump Administration who believe strongly that we should ratchet up the pressure on the Cuban government in an attempt to achieve those elusive goals.”

“I have often spoken publicly about the lack of political freedom and civil liberties in Cuba.  But I also think it is important to try to be objective:  to criticize when called for and to acknowledge positive changes when they occur.”

“I recognize that those who favor maintaining the failed economic embargo have a longstanding, visceral antagonism and resentment toward the Cuban government.  While they rarely, if ever, mention the corrupt and brutal Batista regime that enjoyed unqualified U.S. support until it was overthrown in 1959, they have legitimate reasons to criticize the mistreatment of the Cuban people by the current government and its support for the corrupt and repressive Maduro regime in Venezuela.”

“But they too should acknowledge that threatening and bullying Cuba has not worked.  In fact it has made the situation worse, and provided an excuse for the Cuban government to blame its own failures on us.  They should also acknowledge positive changes in Cuba, but they never do.  Not ever.  It is almost as if they are psychologically, ideologically, or emotionally incapable of saying one positive thing about the Cuban government, no matter what positive things it does.”   

“Perhaps they are afraid that if they did, they would alienate their donors in the Cuban-American community.  Of course, we know that Cuban-Americans are divided about the U.S. embargo.  Some are hardcore believers in the embargo, and they always will be.  But at least as many – and increasing numbers – oppose the embargo, especially those who were born after the Cuban revolution.” 

“I wonder what the pro-embargo isolationists would say if the Cuban government were to stop harassing and abusing dissidents who favor a more democratic system.  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?” 

“What if the Cuban government decided to embrace a free market economy and let private businesses flourish?  Would those who oppose the embargo say anything positive?”

“I doubt it.  I doubt it because no matter what positive reforms occur in Cuba, they will continue to defend the embargo until Cuba is a full-fledged democracy and those who currently hold power either die or are voted out of office.” 

“We all want Cuba to become a democracy, where civil and political rights are respected, and the sooner the better.  But those same defenders of the embargo support billions of dollars in U.S. aid – and weapons sales – to countries that are led by authoritarian, brutal, and corrupt dictatorships and monarchies, some of which have held power for decades or generations.”    

“How do the pro-embargo diehards reconcile that?  They don’t and they can’t.”

“The fact is, Cuba is changing.  Not nearly as fast as we and the Cuban people would like, but it is changing in ways that few would have predicted not very long ago.”

“Last year, Raul Castro’s hand-picked successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, became President and he promised a government more accessible and responsive to the people’s needs.  How he delivers on that promise remains to be seen.”   

“Since 2010, after the Cuban government recognized that the Internet is essential if Cuba wants to be part of the modern world, Internet access has exploded.  The government has opened hundreds of public Wi-Fi hot spots and cyber cafes in the past five years, and home Internet access became legal and available in 2017.  Today, almost half of the Cuban people have personal cell phones that were illegal just a decade ago.”

“As others have pointed out, these changes have encouraged new forms of communication, networking and organizing via social media.”

“But change does not come easily in Cuba, as it does not in many countries.  Last July, the government announced onerous new regulations on the private sector, covering a wide range of issues:  food safety, labor contracts, procurement, taxation, limits on the size of private businesses.  The new rules were an attempt by hardliners to crack down on the private sector, which was criticized for black marketeering.”

“But private entrepreneurs resisted, and they challenged the regulations as contradictory to the government’s own plans that recognizes the private sector as important to economic growth and employment. They appealed to government officials and spoke publicly about the harm the new rules would have on their businesses.”

“When the final regulations were issued, several that had caused the most resentment were dropped.  According to the Minister of Labor and Social Security, the decision to revise the rules was due to ‘the opinion and experiences of those directly involved.’”

“The government also retreated on a new law – Decree 349 – requiring artists, musicians and performers to register with the state and pay a large commission on their earnings from private engagements, and it banned work with objectionable content and empowered inspectors to shut down any offensive exhibition or performance.  Clearly, an attempt to further limit free expression.”

“Since the 1980s, Cuban artists have had more freedom to be critical of the government than other social sectors, and so it was not surprising that Decree 349 ignited widespread protests.  After social media was used to mobilize opposition within the Cuban arts community and among artists abroad, the government agreed not to enforce the law until implementing regulations are drafted in consultation with the arts community.”

“According to one observer, ‘during [the latter half of last year], nearly 8.9 million Cubans debated the draft of a new constitution in their workplaces, neighborhoods and schools.  Communist Party members were told not to argue with even the most radical proposals for amendments, and the ensuing debates were freewheeling, often lasting past their scheduled time.  Among the main topics: whether the president and state governors should be directly elected by voters; whether the concentration of wealth and property should be allowed; whether term limits and age limits for leaders were a good idea; and whether the Communist Party should be subordinated to the constitution and hence the law.”  Not long ago it would have been unthinkable to openly debate these issues, especially as part of a constitutional reform process.”

“One article that attracted intense debate recognized same-sex marriage, and was promoted by Raul Castro’s daughter, a long-time activist for LGBTQ rights. The proposal sparked strong opposition from evangelical churches supported by the Catholic Church.  Gay rights advocates countered with campaigns of their own.  The chance of a significant ‘no’ vote on the entire constitutional reform led the government to drop the provision from the final draft of the constitution with a pledge to consider it later.”

“This surge in mobilization by well-organized constituencies utilizing social media to resist government policy, from burdensome private sector regulations to gay marriage, is unprecedented in Cuba.  The government’s willingness to not only tolerate these organized challenges but to change policies in response to them, is significant. “   

“As has been noted, none of these issues dealt with the rigid structure of the Cuban system.  Cuba remains a one party state, in which those who challenge the system are treated as criminals.  But the precedent of organized interest groups mounting successful campaigns to challenge and change government policy is now established, which is positive.” 

“None of the longstanding critics of the Cuban government in the U.S. Congress or the Cuban-American community [has] acknowledged any of this, nor are they likely too.  For them, anything less than a wholesale change of government in Cuba is unworthy of mention, even though they apply a very different standard – a double standard – to other authoritarian governments.  In fact, they would ridicule anyone who regards such changes as positive or worthy of recognition.”

“As we know from our own experience, political reform is difficult.  Our own Electoral College, an anachronism designed to protect a slave-holding minority, remains in effect more than two centuries later.  Five times, in the world’s oldest democracy, it has prevented the winner of the most popular votes from being elected president.”  

“The Cuban people want to live better and they want a lot less government control over their lives.  Armed with cell phones and the Internet they are going to make increasing demands of their government.  This is happening at a time when Venezuela’s economy is collapsing and the survival of the Maduro regime, Cuba’s closest ally in the hemisphere, is in question.  Not surprisingly, the Cuban government is trying to limit the pace of change and to secure other benefactors.  It is turning increasingly to Russia, Algeria, Iran and other countries that welcome the chance to challenge U.S. influence in this hemisphere.” 

“This is a time for the United States to be actively and visibly engaged in Cuba, for Americans to be traveling to Cuba, for expanding educational, cultural, and professional exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba, and for American companies to be competing in Cuba.  It is not a time to return to a failed policy of threats and ultimatums, driven by domestic politics rather than by what is in our national interests.”

“That is why I am cosponsoring the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act.  And it is why I intend to support other bipartisan legislation to replace our failed Cuba policy with one that serves America’s interests, not the interests of a shrinking minority, and not the interests of Russia and other countries that are reaping the economic benefits of our self-defeating policy of isolation.”

Reaction

I concur in the rationale and conclusion of this speech: end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

While I believe there is valid documentation of the Senator’s assertion that Cuba has limits on free speech and assembly, he views this in isolation from Cuba’s situation. Cuba is a small country facing the vastly larger and more powerful  U.S., which for many years has had various hostile policies and actions against Cuba, including secret and undercover so-called “democracy promotion” programs on the island. In that context, it should be easy to understand why Cuba is concerned about dissidents and free speech and assembly.  Accordingly reliable U.S. assertions about the abolition of so called “democracy promotion” programs on the island should be a precondition to improving Cuban freedoms of speech and assembly.

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Senator Leahy,  Statement of Senator Leahy On the Freedom To Export to Cuba Act (Feb. 15, 2019). 

State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task  Force and Suspends Enforcement of Statutory Liability for Trafficking in Certain Cuban Expropriated Property 

This week the U.S. State Department has taken two actions regarding Cuba: (1) creation of the Cuba Internet Task Force and (2) granting another six-month extension of the right of U.S. persons to sue traffickers in U.S. property that was expropriated by the Cuban government.

U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force.

On January 23, the U.S. Department of State issued a terse announcement that it “is convening a Cuba Internet Task Force composed of U.S. government and non-governmental representatives to promote the free and unregulated flow of information in Cuba. The task force will examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access and independent media in Cuba.” The announcement also stated that the first public meeting of the Task force would be on February 7.[1]

This action was pursuant to President Trump’s June 16, 2017’s National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba that he dramatically signed at a public meeting in the Little Havana district of Miami, Florida. The purpose of that document was to announce various policies “to promote a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people. . . . [to] channel funds toward the Cuban people and away from a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society [and to condemn abuses by the Cuban regime]. . . . [The] Administration will continue to evaluate its policies so as to improve human rights, encourage the rule of law, foster free markets and free enterprise, and promote democracy in Cuba.” (Section 1)[2]

More specifically Section 2 (d) of that Presidential Memorandum stated that the U.S. was to “Amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services, free press, free enterprise, free association, and lawful travel.”

The creation of the Task Force was criticized by Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University. He said, “By casting the issue of internet access in an explicitly political frame, it will only create greater obstacles for those U.S. telecom companies that have made inroads toward partnerships with the Cuban side. Measures like these strengthen the hand of those in Cuba for whom the prospect (and reality) of external meddling justifies maximum caution with respect to internal reform.”

Cuba immediately registered strong objections to the creation of this Task Force with good reason.[3]

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, said, “In the past phrases like promoting “’freedom of speech’ and ‘expanding access to the internet in Cuba’ have been used by Washington as a pretext for schemes to destabilize the country using new technologies.”

One of Granma’s journalists, Sergio Gómez, declared, “If the administration of President Donald Trump intends to use new technologies to impose changes in the internal order of Cuba, he chose very old roads that have already demonstrated their ineffectiveness, without mentioning the obvious fact that they violate the laws of the affected country. even those of the United States.” Moreover, the “terrain chosen for the new aggression, Internet, clearly demonstrates what the true objectives of Washington are when it demands ‘ree access’  to the network in the countries that oppose it, while in its territory it maintains a tracking system and accumulation of data about what citizens do on the web.”

Gómez also asserted that the U.S. “shows a clear pattern of the use of social networks and the internet with objectives geopolitical and domination. All part of a doctrine of unconventional war designed to destabilize nations without the direct use of military forces, which has taken root after the failures in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In another article, Gómez added details about Cuba’s expanded Internet access apparently to reject the implicit premise of the U.S. announcement that Cuba was continuing to suffer from lack of such access. Gomez said, “Cuba, by sovereign decision and to the extent of its economic possibilities, is increasing the access of its citizens to the network of networks. According to information provided by specialist Rosa Miriam Alizada, ‘2017 will be remembered as the boom in the expansion of access to the network in our country, with 40% of Cubans connected to the Internet, 37% more than in 2010, and for the naturalization of the internet connection in urban spaces from one end of the island to the other.’”

Another Cuban journalist with a Doctorate in Political Science from the University of Havana, Randy Alfonso Falcón, reported this was not the first time the U.S. had attempted to use the Internet regarding Cuba. On February 14, 2006, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created the Global Internet Freedom Task Force for “maximizing freedom of expression and free flow of information and ideas, especially in Cuba, Iran and China. The author also asserts that this general strategy was continued in the Obama administration.

Therefore, Falcón believes, “In the face of US action In the Cuban digital public space, our response cannot be merely defensive. We must look forward with a scientifically based vision that mobilizes responses and alternatives from Cuba to the extraordinary ideological and cultural confrontation that arises. Take by assault, from the knowledge, the tools of the new colonizers, build ours and endow them with symbols and emancipating essences.”

Suspension of Right To Sue Over Trafficking in Expropriated Property[4]

On January 24, the day after the creation of the Task Force, the State Department announced that once again it was suspending for six months the right to bring a legal action under Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (a/k/a the Helms-Burton Law).

That Title III in section 302 states, “any person that . . . traffics in property which was confiscated by the Cuban Government on or after January 1, 1959, shall be liable to any United States national who owns the claim to such property for money damages.”

Since its adoption in 1996, however, Title III has been suspended for consecutive six-month periods by orders of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. These suspensions have been made to avoid risking the alienation of U.S. setting legal precedents that contradict other principles of U.S. or international law and opening the door to a potential flood of claims.

John Kavulich, president of the United States-Cuba Economic and Trade Council, said last year that this clause could be “used as a surgical tool to pressure” governments and foreign companies to encourage the Government of Cuba to resolve the 5,913 certified claims that there is in the United States ,” for a total amount of $1.9 billion (with interest).

As previous posts have explained, Cuba recognizes its obligation under international law to pay reasonable compensation for expropriation of property owned by foreigners and in fact has done so for claimants from other countries. Thus, Cuba has conceded the major premise of any I.S. claim for damages for expropriation. In addition, this blog has suggested that the dispute over compensation for expropriation of property owned by Americans be submitted for resolution by an international arbitration tribunal. Presumably the only issue that might be disputed is the value of the property at the time of the expropriation and the amount of interest thereon.[5]

Conclusion

U.S. citizens who support U.S.-Cuba normalization now must see who is appointed to the Cuba Internet Task Force and what it proposes to do. For this blogger, the Task force is based on the erroneous premise that the U.S. may and should unilaterally decide what Internet facilities and access another country should have and unilaterally provide such facilities and technology.  Instead, the U.S. should seek to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries to cooperate on such issues.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Creation of the Cuba Internet Task Force (Jan. 23, 2018); Reuters, State Department creates Cuba Internet Task Force (Jan.23, 2018); Torres, Trump administration wants to expand internet access in Cuba, Miami Herald (Ja. 23, 2018).

[2] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).   Surprisingly this Presidential Memorandum is no longer available on the White House website.

[3] Washington creates Internet Task Force to promote subversion in Cuba, Granma (Jan. 24, 2018); Gomez, The United States takes up failed policies towards Cuba, Granma (Jan. 23, 2018); Gomez, United States creates a new Task Force on the Internet for subversion in Cuba, Granma (Jan. 24, 2018).  See also posts cited in the “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba” section of List of Posts to the List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA.

[4]  U.S. State Dep’t, United States Determination of Six Months’ Suspension Under Title III of Libertad (Jan. 24, 2018); Provision that allows Cuban Americans to sue for confiscated property in Cuba is suspended, Miami Herald (Jan. 24, 2018); Trump suspends for another six months the clause of the Helms Burton that allows expropriation lawsuits, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 24, 2018); Falcón, The US strategy for Cuba in the digital public space, CubaDebate (Jan, 24, 208).

[5]  See Resolution of U.S. and Cuba’s Damage Claims, dwkcommentaries.com (April 6, 2015); Resolving U.S. and Cuba Damage Claims, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 13, 2015).

 

 

Pre-Veto Controversies Regarding the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)         

A prior post reviewed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) (S.2040) that was passed by Congress on September 28, 2016, with sufficient votes to override President Obama’s veto of the bill. Now we look at the pre-veto legislative history of JASTA and controversies over the bill.

Legislative History

S.2040 was introduced in the U.S. Senate on September 16, 2015, by Senator John Cornyn (Rep., TX) with 12 Republican and 12 Democrat cosponsors. Without any hearings on the bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 28, 2016, passed an amendment as a substitute for the original bill, and on February 3, 2016, the Committee Chair, Senator Charles Grassley (Rep., IA), reported the bill to the Senate without a written report.[1]

On May 17, 2016, the Senate unanimously passed the JASTA bill with limited debate.[2] On the Senate floor Senator Cornyn offered a substitute amendment and stated that the U.S. Code already had an exception to sovereign immunity for certain acts of terrorism [28 U.S.C. § 1605A], but “it does not extend to terrorist attacks on our homeland by countries and organizations that have not already been designated as state sponsors of terrorism. This [bill] makes some small changes in that legislation that first passed in 1976 to expand the scope of that [provision] to allow the families of the 9/11 tragedy to seek justice in our courts of law.” The bill has been limited to “injury in the United States.” The bill requires injuries caused by “acts of terrorism,” and excludes “acts of war.” Cornyn also discussed the secondary liability provision of the bill.[3]

Immediately following Cornyn that day, Senator Chuck Schumer (Dem., NY), a cosponsor of the bill, emphasized the bill’s provision allowing the Department of Justice to seek a stay of any lawsuit under this exception. Following the Senate’s passage of the bill, Senator Schumer issued a statement praising this action as correcting erroneous court decisions granting immunity to “foreign actors who finance and enable terrorism on a massive scale” and allowing “terrorism victims, like victims of the September 11th attacks [and of any other acts of terrorism on U.S. soil after 9/11] the opportunity to pursue [financial damage claims against] foreign states who sponsor terrorism in federal court.”[4]

On October 23, 2015, an identical companion bill (H.R.3815) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Peter King (Rep., NY) with 31 Republican and 30 Democrat cosponsors. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which did not hold any hearings on the bill. On September 9, 2016, the Senate companion bill (S.2040) was agreed to and passed by a voice vote in the House.[5]

 Pre-Veto Controversies Over JASTA

The Senate passage of JASTA, on May 17, 2016, was despite lobbying against the bill by Administration officials and warnings by the Saudi government that if the legislation passed, that country might begin selling off up to $750 billion in U.S. Treasury securities and other assets in the U.S. before they faced the danger of being frozen by American courts.[6]

In the midst of this congressional consideration of JASTA, on July 15, 2016, the Senate/House Select Intelligence Committee published the previously classified 28 pages regarding possible connections between Saudi Arabia and 9/11 from the Committee’s “Report on Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.”

A journalist said that these 28 pages set forth “a wide-ranging catalog of meetings and suspicious coincidences. It details contacts between Saudi officials and some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, checks from Saudi royals to operatives in contact with the hijackers and the discovery of a telephone number in a Qaeda militant’s phone book that was traced to a corporation managing an Aspen, Colo., home of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington.” The 28-pages also said, ”It was not the task of this Joint Inquiry to conduct the kind of extensive investigation that would be required to determine the true significance of any such alleged connections to the Saudi Government. . . [But the Committee found no evidence that the] “Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded” Al Qaeda.[7]

Some former September 11 Commission staff members, however, pointed out that the wording in the group’s final report did not rule out the possibility that lower ranking Saudi officials had assisted the hijackers.

On the same day (July 15, 2016) of the release of the 28-pages of the Senate report, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “This information, even as it’s now publicly available, does not change the assessment of the U.S. government [as stated in these 28 pages] that there’s no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded al Qaeda. . . . And the 9/11 Commission was able to draw on the information that’s been declassified today as they wrote their report.  They were able to do follow-up interviews and to further investigate those leads.  Those leads didn’t really turn up anything as it relates to specific evidence about the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funding al Qaeda.”[8]

Press Secretary Earnest also stated, “based on the analysis that’s been conducted by our lawyers here in the U.S. government, the way that this [proposed] law [JASTA] is written could open up U.S. companies and even potentially U.S. personnel to vulnerabilities when they’re engaged in actions or doing business or conducting official government work overseas. There is an important principle related to sovereign immunity.  And when you’re the most powerful country in the world, you’re invested in the idea of sovereign immunity, given how deeply the United States is involved in so many other countries.”

On September 9 (the same date as the House passage of JASTA) the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration had been lobbying against the bill for months and that according to Jack Goldsmith, a professor of law at Harvard and a former official in the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush, “Congress itself could have investigated lingering questions about 9/11, but instead is delegating those tasks to the unelected judiciary. The costs of the law will be borne by courts, which are an awkward place to ascertain Saudi responsibility for 9/11, and especially the president, who will have to deal with the diplomatic fallout with Saudi Arabia and other nations.”

The Times also quoted Pierre Lellouche, a member of the French Parliament, who said he would pursue legislation that would permit French citizens to sue the United States with cause. “I have sympathy with the notion of hitting those countries which actively support terrorism.” But the American bill “will cause a legal revolution in international law with major political consequences.” Even the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee expressed some hesitancy over the bill. He said, “We were able to get some changes to make it less damaging to potential dangers over time. We as a nation have got more to lose on sovereignty issues than any other nation in the world. If the White House actually vetoes this, I think there will be whole levels of discussion.”[9]

Senator John Cornyn, the author of the bill, however, started a barrage of comments urging President Obama to sign the bill by saying on September 9, “the families of those lost in attacks like that on September 11th should have every means at their disposal to seek justice. . . . I hope the President will sign it into law.”  On the Senate floor on September 12 Cornyn said: “It’s important for us to send a message that that evil shall not prevail. . . . [The] victims [of 9/11] and their families still don’t have the ability to get justice from the people, including the governments, who helped fund those terrorist attacks. And that’s where the bill . . . [JASTA] comes into play because if this legislation is signed by the President, it will become the law of the land . . . to make sure that these families who are still grieving and still don’t have closure will be able to seek justice in a court of law against the people who killed their loved one on September 11th.” Cornyn on September 13 threatened an override of a presidential veto of the bill.[10]

President Obama, however, did not sign the bill into law. Instead, On September 23, he vetoed the bill as will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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[1] Library of Congress, THOMAS: S.2040 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act . Going back to 2009, earlier versions of this law were introduced, but I have not examined the history of those versions. If a reader of this post has done so, please elaborate in a comment to this post.

[2] Cong. Record S2845-48 (May 17, 2016); Mazzetti, Senate Passes Bill Exposing Saudi Arabia to 9/11 Legal Claims, N.Y. Times (May 17, 2016).

[3] U.S. Cong. Rec. S2845-2848 (May 17, 2016).

[4] Schumer, Schumer Announces Passage of Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Bill—Urges House to Quickly Pass Legislation Allowing American Families To Seek Justice After 9/11 Attacks (May 17, 2016); Schumer, Schumer Urges House To Swiftly Pass JASTA Bill; Law Would Allow Victims To Seek Justice for Terrorist Acts on U.S. Soil, Senator Says American Families Deserve Their Day in Court (Sept. 7, 2016).

[5] Cong. Record H5239-44 (Sept. 9, 2016); Library of Congress, THOMAS: H.R.3815 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.

[6] See n.2 supra.

[7] Mazzetti, In 9/11 Document, View of a Saudi Effort to Thwart U.S. Action on Al Queda, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2016);    House/Senate Select Comm., 28 Pages of the 2002 Congressional Inquiry into the Sept. 2011 Attacks, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2016).

[8] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest (July 15, 2016).

[9] Steinhauer, House Passes Bill Allowing 9/11 Lawsuits Against Saudi Arabia; White House Hints at Veto, N.Y. Times (Sept. 9, 2016).

[10] Cornyn, Cornyn Calls on President to sign 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 9, 2016);Cornyn, Cornyn: American People Support 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 12, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn to White House: Don’t Keep 9/11 Families Waiting (Sept. 13, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn Presses White House to Act on 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 19, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn to White House: Stop Stalling on 9/11 Bill (Sept. 20, 2016).

 

 

Wall Street Journal Publishes President Obama’s Plea for a Senate Hearing and Vote on Nomination of Merrick Garland to U.S. Supreme Court

On July 17 the Wall Street Journal, which usually is opposed to President Obama, published President Obama’s plea for a U.S. Senate hearing and vote on the President’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.[1] Here is what the President wrote.

“For more than 40 years, there has been an average of just over two months between a president’s nominating someone to the Supreme Court and that person’s receiving a hearing in Congress. It has now been more than four months since I nominated Merrick Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—and Congress left town for a seven-week recess without giving him a hearing, let alone an up-or-down vote.”

“This is much more serious than your typical case of Washington dysfunction. And if we allow it to continue, the consequences of congressional inaction could weaken our most important institutions, erode public trust and undermine our democracy.”

“Every Supreme Court nominee since 1875 who hasn’t withdrawn from the process has received a hearing or a vote. Even when the nominee was controversial. Even when the Senate and the White House were held by different parties.”

“But Chief Judge Garland isn’t controversial. He has more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in our history. He is widely respected by people of both political parties as a man of experience, integrity and unimpeachable qualifications. The partisan decision of Senate Republicans to deny a hearing to a judge who has served his country with honor and dignity is not just an insult to a good man—it is an unprecedented escalation of the stakes. It threatens the very process by which we nominate judges, regardless of who our next president is. And it should concern every American who cares about the rule of law and upholding the institutions that make our democracy work.”

“Here’s why. Historically, when a president nominates a Supreme Court justice—regardless of when in the presidential term this occurs—the Senate is obligated to act. Senators are free to vote their conscience. But they vote. That’s their job.”

“If Republicans in the Senate refuse even to consider a nominee in the hopes of running out the clock until they can elect a president from their own party, so that he can nominate his own justice to the Supreme Court, then they will effectively nullify the ability of any president from the opposing party to make an appointment to the nation’s highest court. They would reduce the very functioning of the judicial branch of the government to another political leverage point.”

“We cannot allow the judicial confirmation process to descend into an endless cycle of political retaliation. There would be no path to fill a vacancy for the highest court in the land. The process would stall. Court backlogs would grow. An entire branch of government would be unable to fulfill its constitutional role. And some of the most important questions of our time would go unanswered.”

“This is troubling for two reasons. First, a functioning judiciary—at every level—is essential to the business of the nation. For example, last month, a deadlocked Supreme Court was unable to reach a decision on several major issues, leaving the law itself in limbo. Across the country, judicial vacancies are leaving some lower courts so overwhelmed they can barely make it through their dockets. Twenty-nine judicial emergencies have been declared by lower courts across the country. This has real implications for jurisprudence, real financial costs to the judicial system and real consequences in the lives of people awaiting the outcomes of those cases.”

“Second, treating the Supreme Court like a political football makes the American people more cynical about democracy. When the Supreme Court becomes a proxy for political parties, public confidence in the notion of an impartial, independent judiciary breaks down. And the resulting lack of trust can undermine the rule of law.”

“So here’s an idea. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate could agree to give Chief Judge Garland a hearing when they return from their extended recess, while also committing to give every future qualified Supreme Court nominee a hearing and a vote within an established time frame. It’s a good idea that my predecessor, President George W. Bush, suggested during his time in office. This reasonable proposal would prevent the confirmation process from breaking down beyond repair, and help restore good faith between the two parties.”

“In my travels around the world as president, I have seen how hard democracy is—how it takes more than a proclamation or even an election. Democracies depend on the institutions we build, the rules upon which the nation is founded, and the traditions, customs and habits of heart that guide our behavior and ensure that political differences never override the founding ideals that bind us. And it is on us—all of us—to preserve and protect them.”

“Now we need Congress to act. We need senators to demonstrate that, once again, America has the capacity to rise above disagreements and maintain a fidelity to the values that, for 240 years, have made this extraordinary experiment a success. That’s what the American people deserve—and it’s what makes ours the greatest country the world has ever known.”

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[1] President Obama, Merrick Garland Deserves a Vote—For Democracy’s Sake, W.S.J. (July 17, 2016).

University Students Investigate Jim Crow-Era Killings

Students at Atlanta’s Emory University are investigating Jim Crow-era murders of blacks in Georgia. They then publish their results online. This is the focus of Emory’s “The Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project.” Similar projects exist at least three other universities. Important federal legislation and actions by the U.S. Department of Justice provide important background for such efforts. These subjects will be explored in this post.

Emory’s Project[1]

The Project was started in 2011 as an interdisciplinary Civil Rights Cold Cases class examining incidents that occurred in Georgia. In January 2015, it launched a website, coldcases.emory.edu, that is the joint product of more than fifty students’ work during seven semesters of the course.

The Emory class is taught by Hank Klibanoff, the James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, and by Brett Gadsden, Associate Professor of African American Studies.

Professor Gadsden said the class is run like “a research seminar, with intense focus on individuals’ lives and attention to the historical context in which these folks lived. These stories come alive for students. They aren’t just presenting cases or telling the stories of lowly black victims. They are really trying to understand what happened, what the circumstances were, what happened to the people, how they lived, how they died, who killed them, and why, but understanding these victims’ deaths as a part of the historical record.”

The students prepare both a ten-page academic paper on their topic of choice and a condensed article for publication on the website. Gadsden emphasizes that the students are “writing for the professors, for each other, and also for a public of both academics and non-academics. They are accountable to the descendants of the lost, and that comes with a special responsibility—one that the students embrace.”

The recent Wall Street Journal article about Emory’s project tells the moving story of the students’ investigation of the September 8, 1948, killing by two white men of Isaiah Nixon, a black man who had voted that same day in Georgia’s gubernatorial primary election. One of the white men was charged with murder, but was acquitted in a one-day trial by an all-white jury. Afterwards the accessory-to-murder charge against the other white man was dropped. The Emory students’ investigation led them to conclude that Nixon had been murdered because he had voted in that primary election.

The students also discovered Nixon’s grave in a Georgia cemetery and invited his daughter, Dorothy Nixon Williams, who at age 6 had witnessed the murder of her father, to visit the grave last week with them and her son. Now 73 years old, Dorothy said when seeing the grave, “Lord have mercy,” sobbing into her son’s shoulder. Professor Klibanoff commented, “Isaiah Nixon matters; his life matters and his death and disappearance from history matter. What matters more is his reappearance now and I think that is miraculous.” At the conclusion of the visit, Dorothy said her anger over her father’s murder “now is completely released.”

Other Similar Projects

Similar projects are being conducted by Northeastern University School of Law, Syracuse University College of Law and Louisiana State University.

Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project investigates “the role of state, local and federal law enforcement agencies and courts in protecting activists and their work. [The Project] examines the geo-politics that led to the large-scale breakdown of law enforcement, the wide-spread repression against the movement’s participants, and the reforms that have been initiated to rectify these abuses. The project engages teachers and students across the university and is directed by faculty from the School of Law and the College of Criminal Justice.” [2]

Syracuse’s Cold Case Justice Initiative was established in 2007 by Syracuse law professors Paula Johnson and Janis McDonald to investigate “racially motivated murders that occurred during the Civil Rights era and [to advocate] on behalf of the victims and their families to get justice for the crimes. The program works with law students to conduct research, identify victims and find new information that could assist law enforcement in resolving cases. The Initiative as of has identified [nearly 200] cases from the civil rights era they believe warranted further investigation by federal authorities.”[3]

Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication started its Cold Case Project in 2010 to investigate Civil Rights-era hate murders in Louisiana and southern Mississippi. Since then nearly three-dozen students, comprised mainly of seniors and graduate students, have worked on such cases. Their “primary focus is to bring closure to African-American communities which have lingered decades without fully knowing what federal agents learned about the deaths of family members and friends.” Jay Shelledy, who is in charge of the Project, said FBI agents at the time did their best to solve these vicious killings, but were thwarted by intimidated witnesses, Klan-sympathizing local lawmen and white juries which refused to convict whites of murdering blacks.[4]

In February 2015 the LSU Project launched a searchable website detailing heretofore sealed FBI investigative findings in a dozen such murders. It contains more than 150,000 pages of FBI findings, resulting stories, photographs and letters from the U.S. Department of Justice to the victims’ next of kin. Many thousands of additional pages of FBI case files are pending release under FOIA requests; when released, they will be added to the digital database.

Background for These Projects

These projects have been stimulated and assisted by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). In 2006, the Department began its Cold Case Initiative—a comprehensive program to identify and investigate racially motivated murders committed decades ago. The effort was reinforced in 2008 with the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act that authorized the Department to investigate unsolved civil rights murders before 1970. This statute had been introduced in 2007 by Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and unanimously passed by both houses of Congress in 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush.[5]

As of May 2015, the Department reported to Congress that it had concluded 105 of 113 relevant cold cases involving 126 victims, but that “very few prosecutions have resulted from these exhaustive efforts.” (The single case that went to court involved Jimmie Lee Jackson, who was shot by Alabama State Trooper James Fowler after a civil rights protest in 1965. In 2010, at age 77, Fowler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six months in prison.)[6]

This was due, said the report, for many reasons. Federal statutory law limits the Department’s ability to prosecute civil-rights era cases at the federal level. There is a five-year statute of limitations on federal criminal civil-rights charges that existed prior to 1994. The Fifth Amendment protects against double jeopardy, which prevents the re-trial of someone for an offense for which he or she was previously found not guilty. In addition, cold cases can be difficult to prosecute because “subjects die, witnesses die or can no longer be located, memories become clouded, evidence is destroyed or cannot be located.”

This statute is due to expire in 2017, and efforts are being made to lobby for its extension.

Conclusion

These projects are significant and inspiring. First, they complement and should be coordinated with the amazing justice advocacy of Bryan Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative that was discussed in a prior post. Second, these projects are excellent examples of a mode of teaching an important subject that should be included in this blogger’s reflections on modes of teaching and learning as set forth in another earlier post.

We all should give thanks to Emory, Northeastern, Syracuse and Louisiana State University for their leadership in this important work.

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[1] McWhirter, College Class Investigates Jim Crow-Era Killings, W.S. J. (Jan. 24, 2016),; Lameiras, Cold Cases Project helps student uncover history of civil rights era crimes, Emory Mag. (May 25, 2015); Emory Libraries, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases; Justice, Emory student research debuts on Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases website (Jan. 7, 2015); Emory Univ., Special Topics Seminar: Cold Cases (description of seminar and tentative list of readings).

[2] Northeastern Univ. School of Law, Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. An earlier version of this post erroneously included Northwestern University College of Law’s important Wrongful Conviction Center, and I thank Professor Hank Klibanoff for pointing out this error.

[3] Joiner, Inside the Effort to Solve Civil Rights Crimes Before It’s Too Late, Time (Oct. 15, 2015).

[4] LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project; Lemoine, Cold Case, LSU Gold (Fall 2011); LSU Manship School of Mass Communication, Cold Case Project website released (Feb. 25, 2015).

[5] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Cold Case Initiative.

[6] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Attorney General’s Sixth Annual Report to Congress Pursuant to the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007 (May 2015).

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Unsatisfactory “Case for Reparations”

840The June 2014 issue of The Atlantic devotes 20 black-bordered pages to “The Case for Reparations” as the lead and cover article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, its national correspondent.

This is a serious subject by an author who has been obtaining some prominence or notoriety this year occasioned by his best-selling book, “Between the World and Me,” which was discussed in a previous post.

Moreover, on September 28, 2015, the MacArthur Foundation awarded one of its prestigious Fellows or “genius” grants to Coates and asserted that he “brings personal reflection and historical scholarship to bear on America’s most contested issues . . . without shallow polemic and in a measured style.” In “The Case for Reparations,” according to the Foundation, “Coates grapples with the rationalizations for slavery and their persistence in twentieth-century policies like Jim Crow and redlining . . . [and] compellingly argues for remuneration for the economic impact on African Americans denied the ability to accumulate wealth or social status for generations. [The article is] deeply felt and intensely researched.”

I, therefore, was expecting a serious discussion of this important issue.

Instead, I was profoundly disappointed in the analysis as well as the quality of the research and writing of this article and strongly disagree with MacArthur’s glowing commentary on the article.

Coates’ Discussion of Reparations

Coates mentions that certain scholars have discussed how reparations might be implemented. One, he says, suggested multiplying the number of African Americans in the population by the difference between white and black per capita income and then presumably paying that difference to each African American each year for a decade or two. Another, Coates reports, proposed a program of job training and public works for all poor people. (P. 69) But Coates does not endorse either one.

Instead Coates hides in generalizations. He says reparations means “the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences” and “a revolution of American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history” (p.70).

On the last page of the article (p. 71) Coates becomes more specific by advocating congressional adoption of a bill for a federal study of the issue of reparations that has been offered by Representative John Conyers (Dem., MI) for the last 25 years. Without examining the details of the bill or the arguments advanced for the bill by Conyers, Coates states, “No one can know what would come out of such a [study and] debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of back people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane.”

This is not, as MacArthur suggests, a compelling argument “for remuneration for the economic impact on African Americans denied the ability to accumulate wealth or social status for generations.”

The Conyers’ Bill

An examination of the Conyers bill itself does not buttress the claimed genius of the Coates article. In the current session of Congress this bill is H.R.40: The Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. A quick examination of the Library of Congress THOMAS website reveals that the bill (in sections 4, 5 and 7) would establish a commission of seven members (three to be appointed by the U.S. President, three by the Speaker of the House of Representatives and one by the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate) to hold hearings and issue a report of its findings and recommendations.

The key to the bill is section 2(a), which would make the following factual findings that Coates takes most of 20 pages to elucidate:

“(1) approximately 4,000,000 Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and colonies that became the United States from 1619 to 1865;

(2) the institution of slavery was constitutionally and statutorily sanctioned by the Government of the United States from 1789 through 1865;

(3) the slavery that flourished in the United States constituted an immoral and inhumane deprivation of Africans’ life, liberty, African citizenship rights, and cultural heritage, and denied them the fruits of their own labor; and

(4) sufficient inquiry has not been made into the effects of the institution of slavery on living African-Americans and society in the United States.”

Section 2(b) of the bill  then states the commission would examine and report on these factual predicates plus the “de facto discrimination against freed slaves and their descendants from the end of the Civil War to the present, including economic, political, and social discrimination.” With such factual determinations the commission would be charged to “recommend appropriate ways to educate the American public of the Commission’s findings” and “appropriate remedies.”

Representative Conyers’ website  contains a discussion of the bill that at least alludes to the following challenging sub-issues that would face such a commission and that are not examined by Coates: “whether an apology is owed, whether compensation is warranted and, if so, in what form and who should be eligible.”

Resolution for Rectification of Misdeeds Against African-Americans

More importantly, Coates’ article does not mention a resolution (H.Res.194) adopted in 2008 by the U.S. House of Representatives that has lengthy factual preambles about the evils of slavery and Jim Crow. [1] The House in H.Res.194 more importantly also:

  1. “acknowledges that slavery is incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal;”
  2. “acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;”
  3. “apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and  their ancestors who suffered under slavery and  Jim Crow; and”
  4. “expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.”

Yes, this is only a resolution by only one chamber of the Congress, but it is closer to the result apparently being advocated by Coates than the Conyers’ bill.

U.S. Presidential Statements About Slavery

H.Res.194 in a preamble asserts that “on July 8, 2003, during a trip to Goree Island, Senegal, a former slave port, President George W. Bush acknowledged slavery’s continuing legacy in American life and the need to confront that legacy when he stated that slavery `was . . . one of the greatest crimes of history . . . The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destiny is set: liberty and justice for all.”[2]

In another preamble H.Res.194 asserts, “President Bill Clinton also acknowledged the deep-seated problems caused by the continuing legacy of racism against African-Americans that began with slavery when he initiated a national dialogue about race.”

Neither of these presidential statements is mentioned by Coates, both of which support his opinion favoring reparations.

Caribbean States’ Reparations Claims

Apparently at least 14 states in the Caribbean are preparing claims for reparations for slavery against their former colonial rulers: Great Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron recently rejected that reparations idea.[3]

Again there is no mention of these claims by Coates even though they lend credence to his advocacy of similar reparations in the U.S.[4]

Litigation Over Contracts for Deed

Coates leads the article with a lengthy discussion of problems faced by blacks on the west side of Chicago in the 1960’s in financing purchases of homes and as a result being forced to do so on contracts for deed with unscrupulous sellers (pp. 56-59). Coates then enthusiastically endorses these black purchasers’ bringing a federal lawsuit against the sellers for reparations (or money damages). On the next page (p.60), however, Coates tells the reader, without any citation of source, that in 1976 the black plaintiffs lost a jury trial supposedly due to anti-black prejudice of the jury and even later in the article (p.67) he says that as a result of the lawsuit some of the plaintiffs were allowed to own their homes outright while others obtained regular mortgages.

Coates, however, fails to mention that according to a secondary source from the University of Illinois-Chicago, the west-side case went to trial in the Spring of 1976, and in November 1979, the jury decided that the sellers had taken advantage of the buyers for higher profits, but that the sellers were so ruthless they would have cheated anyone, not only blacks, and, therefore, the jury rejected the racial discrimination claim, and the plaintiffs’ lawyers decided not to appeal this decision.

That same secondary source reports that a related case from the south side of Chicago went to trial in 1972 before a federal district judge with a jury. At the close of the evidence, the court directed a verdict against the plaintiffs saying that they had not proved a prima facie case of discrimination. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed and remanded for a new trial. That new trial occurred in 1979, without a jury, before a district judge who decided in favor of the defendants, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

Clyde Ross was prominently mentioned at the start of the Coates’ article about the housing discrimination that led to the above litigation, and after the publishing of the Coates article, Ross said in an interview, “I don’t know why we would even discuss [reparations] . . .when that would never happen. It involves taking money, property, from other people, from the people with power and wealth. How could that ever come to be? In theory, yes it is a good idea, but it’s better to be practical. I support equality under the law. I just want to be able to pay off a mortgage knowing that I am getting the same deal as the white guy. That’s all I ask.”

Coates also did not uncover in his research the successful Minnesota lawsuit in the 1920’s by a black couple against white landlords who after accepting contract-for-deed payments for 25 years denied the couple possession of the Minneapolis house on the false assertion that their payments were only rent. The couple’s attorney, by the way, was Lena Olive Smith, the state’s first black female lawyer who became the leader of the city’s NAACP branch in the 1930s.

Conclusion

I am not a scholar of race relations in the U.S. or of reparations generally or in the U.S. specifically. The above discussion of facts that apparently were not discovered by Coates was based upon this blogger’s perfunctory Internet searching.

The Coates article also is difficult to read because of the lack of an introduction and conclusion and of any headings or subdivisions amidst the parade of often densely packed paragraphs that do not follow in a logical order.[5]

This blogger as a retired lawyer might be seen as engaging in an inappropriate  lawyerly criticism of the Coates’ article. But Coates presumably is advocating for others to embrace the conclusion that reparations are a necessary response to a major societal problem. As an advocate, he should write to be more persuasive.

This blogger as a white American is supportive of civil and human rights generally and is willing to consider a well-written and documented case for U.S. reparations for slavery and Jim Crow. Unfortunately the Coates article does not do that. It needs additional research and a major rewrite. (As always, I invite others’ comments of agreement or disagreement.)

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[1] U.S. House of Reps., 110th Cong., 2nd Sess.,  H.Res.194 (July 29, 2008)..As February 23, 2007, was the bicentennial of the British Parliament’s abolition of slave trading, the 110th U.S. Congress (2007-2009) had 150 bills and resolutions that mentioned the word “slavery,” but this blog has not “drilled down” to determine their details.

[2] President Bush Speaks at Goree Island in Sengal (July 8, 2003)

[3] E.g., Search for “slavery,” Guardian; Bilefsky, David Cameron Grapples with Issue of Slavery Reparations in Jamaica, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cameron Provides Caribbean Aid, Rejects Slavery Reparations, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2015); Room for Debate: Are Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Reparations Due?, N.Y. Times (Oct. 8, 2015).

[4] Coates does mention Massachusetts’ granting a 1783 petition for reparations by a black freewoman; 17th and 18th century Quakers’ granting reparations; the 1987 formation of a National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America; the 1993 NAACP’s endorsement of reparations; a lawsuit for reparations brought by Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree, Jr. (without mentioning its details or outcome); and Germany’s reparations to Israel for the Holocaust (pp. 61, 70-71).

[5] The online version of the article added headings I through X, but most of them are quotations from sources in the sections, requiring the reader to dive into the sections to discover their significance. Another post discusses Coates’ “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic (Oct. 2015), which also has chapter headings, most of which do not help the reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More about Coates:

 

Brooks: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/david-brookss-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates-about-race.html

 

Ltrs re column: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/21/opinion/david-brookss-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates-about-race.html

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/07/17/david_brooks_scolds_ta_nehisi_coates_i_think_you_distort_history/

 

http://crooksandliars.com/2015/07/dont-be-fooled-all-forelock-tugging-david

 

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/david-brooks-nyt-ta-nehisi-coates

 

http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/ta-nehisi-coates-david-brooks-american-dream

 

http://jezebel.com/listening-to-ta-nehisi-coates-whilst-snuggled-deep-with-1718506352

 

http://www.alternet.org/media/david-brooks-relies-ignorant-white-privilege-attack-ta-nehisi-coates-new-book

 

http://townhall.com/columnists/marknuckols/2015/07/17/tanehisi-coates-cheers-deaths-of-911-rescuers-david-brooks-apologizes-for-being-white-n2026881

 

http://aaihs.org/ta-nehisi-coates-david-brooks-and-the-master-narrative-of-american-history/

 

http://www.citypaper.com/arts/books/bcp-072915-books-coates-gunnery-20150724-story.html

 

https://www.thewrap.com/new-york-times-columnist-david-brooks-blasted-for-white-privilege-letter-to-ta-nehisi-coates/

 

http://flavorwire.com/528823/the-american-dream-david-brooks-loves-so-much-is-rich-white-americas-greatest-tool-of-social-control