Q: With all the protests about social injustice in our country now, one argument being made is that reparations should be paid for slavery. Is there a legal basis for that?
A: Discussion with regard to reparations for slavery is not new. In 1783, Belinda Royall submitted a petition to the Massachusetts General Court requesting a pension from the proceeds of her enslaver’s estate. She was a Ghanaian-born woman, enslaved by the Royall family there, and abandoned by her master. She was awarded 15 pounds and 12 shillings.
There are other instances that are relevant, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. About $37 million was paid to 26,000 claimants based on the Japanese-American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948. In 1988, Congress voted to extend an apology, and to pay $30,000 to each Japanese American survivor of the internment (more than $1.6 billion was paid). Further, in 2008, the House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for American slavery and subsequent discriminatory laws. In 2009, the Senate passed a resolution apologizing for the country’s oppression of African Americans, but a disclaimer was included that barred people from seeking reparations.
Bills have also been introduced over the years to create a commission to study and evaluate reparation proposals related to African Americans. One possible basis for reparations is the legal theory of unjust enrichment, which seeks to disgorge ill-gotten gains, and is rooted in justice and equity. Bottom line: it will take an act of Congress for reparations to be approved.
Q: Does the government actually have the authority to take someone’s real property, if they pay enough?
-L.K., Manhattan Beach
A: Under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the government has to pay “just compensation” if someone’s real property is going to be subject to a taking (legally referred to as eminent domain). It is not just money to be paid — there has to be a sufficient public purpose served as well. So, yes, the government can “take” your real property, but not without meeting certain criteria and requirements.
Ron Sokol is a Manhattan Beach attorney with more than 35 years of experience. His column, which appears in print on Wednesdays, presents a summary of the law and should not be construed as legal advice. Email questions and comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.