Landmark Supreme Court Case: Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) is the sixteenth landmark Supreme Court case, and first case in the Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Dred Scott Facts:
Dred Scott was a slave in Missouri. From 1833 to 1843, he resided in Illinois (a free state) and in the Louisiana Territory, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After returning to Missouri, Scott filed suit in Missouri court for his freedom, claiming that his residence in free territory made him a free man. After losing, Scott brought a new suit in federal court. Scott’s master maintained that no “negro” or descendant of slaves could be a citizen in the sense of Article III of the Constitution.
Q: Was Dred Scott free or slave?
A: No. Portions of the Missouri Compromise were held unconstitutional in violation of the Fifth Amendment, treating Scott as property, not as a person.
Dred Scott Conclusion
7-2 decision reversing judgment and dismissing suit for lack of jurisdiction:
- Persons of African descent cannot be and were never intended to be citizens under the US Constitution. Plaintiff is without standing to file a suit.
- The Property Clause is applicable only to lands possessed at the time of the Constitution’s ratification (1787). As such, Congress cannot ban slavery in the territories. The Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional.
- The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibits the federal government from freeing slaves brought into federal territories.
Court ruled that black people:
are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.
The court supported its ruling with an extended survey of American state and local laws from the time of the Constitution’s drafting in 1787 that purported to show that a:
perpetual and impassable barrier was intended to be erected between the white race and the one which they had reduced to slavery.
The Court hoped that the decision would permanently settle the slavery controversy which was increasingly dividing the American public, instead, the decision was condemned everywhere (except for slaveholding states of course) and was a contributing factor in the outbreak of the Civil War four years later, in 1861.
After the Union’s victory in 1865, the Court’s rulings in Dred Scott were voided by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.
Dred Scott is largely regarded as the worst decision in the history of the court. To their credit, dissenting Justices Benjamin Robbins Curtis and John Mclean cast doubt on the court’s position that the Founders categorically opposed anti-slavery laws. They also argued men of African descent could be citizens because they already had the right to vote in five states.
Next Case In Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality: Bradwell v. Illinois (1873)
Next Case: Ex Parte Milligan (1866)
Previous Case: Luther v. Borden (1849)