The court still left the door open for further litigation.
"Plaintiffs' attempt to bring these claims more than a century after the end of the Civil War and the formal abolition of slavery fails," U.S. District Judge Charles R. Norgle said.
He said the plaintiffs' claims "are beyond the constitutional authority of this court." And he said the suit alleged no specific connection between the plaintiffs and the companies named as defendants.
But the ruling dismissed the case "without prejudice," meaning the slave descendants seeking reparations from U.S. companies are allowed to file an amended complaint.
Lionel Jean-Baptiste, a lawyer representing two women who are descendants of slaves, said he expected to do exactly that.
"I had an expectation that this would happen," Jean-Baptiste said after Norgle released his 75-page opinion.
The lawsuit was first filed in U.S. District Court in New York in 2002 and later moved to Chicago. The suit names companies like the Lehman Brothers brokerage firm, Aetna Insurance and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, saying they or their corporate ancestors made money off slavery. Lawsuits filed around the country seeking reparations for slavery have been combined into a single court action.
In his opinion, Norgle acknowledged "the historic injustices and the immorality of the institution of human chattel slavery in the United States."
But he said longstanding doctrine in matters involving political questions "bars the court from deciding the issue of slavery reparations, an issue that has been historically and constitutionally committed to the legislative and executive branches of our government."
As for the timing, he said the plaintiffs had failed to show how the wrongs cited in the lawsuit fall within the statute of limitations.
"Some may view this ruling as a condonation of ancient wrongs," Norgle said. "That view is wrong. To suggest that the lions have won again and that the court is impervious to the human suffering at the core of this case would be absurd."
Jean-Baptiste had said that if the plaintiffs won their lawsuit, they would set up a trust fund to help the black community support social programs.
By Mike Robinson