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Cold cases

In late 1942 and early 1943, government agents arrived on the doorsteps of numerous poor farmers in eastern Kentucky, informing them that the Army needed their land — 36,000 acres in all — to build the training facility now known as Camp Breckenridge.

It was wartime. Patriotism came into play. The residents moved.

Twenty years later, however, when the government got millions by selling the coal, oil and natural gas rights to that land, the local folks and their children began to feel they’d been had.

They went to court. In fact, the matter has been pending now for more than 40 years.

Cases aren’t usually allowed to drag on that long. But Congress — at the request of the local delegation — specifically authorized the dispute to proceed before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

The government argues the families were properly compensated for their land at the time and are owed nothing further.

Roger Marzulla, a lawyer for the families, says owners were rushed to sell in a matter of weeks and had no opportunity to survey their land for mineral resources. He said many families didn’t aggressively resist because they were assured they’d be allowed to buy their land back after the war.

William Shapiro, a Justice Department lawyer, replies the families can’t produce anything aside from vague recollections and hearsay supporting the key claim that they were promised an option to repurchase.

In April, Judge Susan Braden recommended awarding the families $34.3 million — roughly the profits the government made from selling the mineral rights to the land in the 1960s.

Tuesday, a three-judge review panel heard arguments on whether that recommendation should be allowed to stand.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for the poor folk of eastern Kentucky. The problem is that, first, no real wrongdoing is alleged. An Army training facility to be built in wartime is precisely the kind of “public use” the Fifth Amendment envisions for property seizures, and everyone agrees the landowners were paid.

Second, any settlement will be paid out of taxes collected from struggling present-day Americans in Maine and Alaska and Nebraska who had nothing to do with the property or the actions in question.

But finally, what’s to stop anybody from reaching a little further back — to 1863, say? Plenty of noncombatant civilians saw their homes destroyed when Grant shelled Vicksburg. Can’t Uncle Sam spare a few million to make those families whole?

For that matter, all America’s mineral wealth lies under lands once controlled by American Indians. Should only their direct descendants benefit from that bounty?

To study past abuses in hopes of doing better in our own time is admirable. Reparations to American citizens of Japanese descent who were actually imprisoned during World War II — to the actual survivors — were important, expressing our resolve not to repeat such errors.

But this is getting silly.

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