Black History Month: The Dred Scott Case – In Matters of Justice, Justices Matter…
(re-sent from 2017 & 2018)
In March of 1857, barely four years before the start of the Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court issued probably its most controversial ruling ever in the Scott v. Sandford case or Dred Scott Decision. The case was so controversial that Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) wrote a book about the decision and its far-reaching effects. Legal scholars and historians frequently cite the Dred Scott ruling as the worst decision in the history of the US Supreme Court.
Dred Scott was a slave owned by an Army surgeon who escaped while in a free state, subsequently filed suit in court for his freedom, and was at one point ruled a free man by a lower court. That ruling was overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court, but with the assistance of abolitionists and others, Dred Scott filed suit in federal court, and ultimately, the case was heard by the US Supreme Court.
At the time of the decision, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Roger B. Taney, was a slave owner, and a staunch defender of slavery as an institution. Key points of the ruling included declaring that Congress did not have the power to outlaw slavery in US territories (specifically the Missouri Compromise). It is only one of two decisions in US history that the Court held an act by Congress to be unconstitutional.
The Court ruled that Scott had no right to sue in federal court, had no standing as a citizen, and because slaves were property – not human beings – Dred Scott must be returned to his rightful owner. Even more controversial was Chief Justice Taney’s (a slave owner) formal Opinion of the Court regarding the constitutional rights – or lack thereof – of any black person, whether slave or free.
Chief Justice Taney wrote:
…” [Negroes] were a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, remained subject to [white] authority… The Negro race were beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race… and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his [own] benefit.”
Chilling words. Those words had consequences then, and consequences now. It was true more than 160 years ago, it is still true today: It ABSOLUTELY does matter who serves on our nation’s highest court – and in our federal judiciary generally. These are all LIFETIME appointments. All those who sit in judgment of others, who interpret how the law applies to others, do so through the lens of their lived experience.
As America’s prisons continue to be filled disproportionately by black and brown people – with corporations making hundreds of millions in profits every year off cheap labor; while federal courts decide the constitutionality of locking immigrant children in cages, and whether state-sanctioned kidnapping is executive overreach; while judicial nominees accused of violating women now serve on the nation’s highest court and soon will decide a woman’s right to choose – we are painfully reminded why justices matter in matters of justice. And those with the power to appoint them…
Women, people of color, poor people, immigrants, homeless people, the LGBTQ community – recognize how far we’ve come, but also know how very far we have to go. The struggle continues…
NOTE: An excellent collection and analysis of United States Supreme Court cases dealing with slavery, e.g., the Amistad case, the Denmark Vesey rebellion and many others, is Slavery In the Courtroom, by Constitutional law professor and scholar Paul Finkelman.