Slave cases are still cited as good law. This team is trying to change that Michigan State law professor Justin Simard says 18% of all published American cases are within two steps of a slave case. His team has spent years documenting them, hoping to force a legal reckoning.

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Slave cases are still cited as good law across the U.S. This team aims to change that

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Slavery, in 2023, is still shaping the U.S. legal system more than 150 years after its abolition. Lawyers and judges across the country use old cases involving enslaved people to back up modern day legal arguments. As NPR's Rachel Treisman reports, a team of researchers is challenging that practice.

RACHEL TREISMAN, BYLINE: Justin Simard was working on his history dissertation a few years back when he stumbled upon something surprising. Again and again, he found judges relying on old cases involving enslaved people to inform recent legal decisions.

JUSTIN SIMARD: After months of research, I found more than 300 examples of judges directly citing slave cases in the last 35 years.

TREISMAN: Simard now leads the Citing Slavery Project at Michigan State University's College of Law. He's worked with students to create an online database of nearly 9,000 so-called slave cases and the modern cases that reference them.

SIMARD: I've done some analysis and concluded that 18% of all published American cases are within two steps of a slave case - so either cite the slave case or cite a case that cites a slave case.

TREISMAN: Many of these cases involve things like contracts, commercial transactions and property disputes. And most of the time, judges don't acknowledge that they involved slavery at all. Simard wants courts to consider whether it's ethical to rely on cases that treat people as property.

SIMARD: Lawyers and judges have so much power in our society. I think it makes sense for concerned citizens to think about how that authority is constituted and also how this reflects on their judgment and their ability to support justice.

TREISMAN: Simard says the legal profession has been slow to grapple with its links to slavery, and he sees acknowledgement as an important first step. He successfully lobbied the Bluebook, the definitive citation style guide, to add a rule requiring that slave cases be labeled as such in footnotes.

SIMARD: Slavery is all over the place. Part of the goal of our project is to make sure that influence is accounted for.

TREISMAN: His team has also met with local high school students to talk about their work and law school itself. Diversifying the profession, he says, is the way forward.

Rachel Treisman, NPR News.

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