Dred Scott v. Sandford
60 U.S. 393 (1856)

  • Scott was a slave originally owned by a guy named Emerson in Missouri.
    • Emerson took Scott around to different places around the US, including Illinois, which did not permit slavery, and Wisconsin.
      • At the time, Wisconsin was just a territory, and in the Missouri Compromise, Congress had abolished slavery in the territories.
  • Emerson died.
  • Scott sued Emerson’s wife (Sanford), arguing that since slavery was illegal in Illinois, the fact that Scott had been in Illinois made him a free person.
  • The Trial Court found for Scott and declared him a free man. Sanford appealed.
  • The Missouri Supreme Court reversed.
    • The Missouri Supreme Court found that Scott was a still a slave.
    • That actually went against their own precedent.
  • Scott went back and tried again, this time suing in Federal Court.
    • Scott was a resident of Missouri and by this time he was owned by Sanford’s brother, who lived in New York. That meant that Scott could sue in Federal Court because of diversity jurisdiction.
  • The US Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit.
    • The US Supreme Court found that as a slave, Scott was not a citizen under Missouri law, and therefore did not have standing to bring suit.
      • Basically, in order to bring suit in Federal court, which is what Scott was trying to do, there must be diversity of citizenship. Since Scott was not a citizen of any State, no Federal court had jurisdiction to hear him.
      • Later, the 14th Amendment would declare that all persons born or naturalized in a State are to be considered citizens of that State.
    • The Court found that States do not have the right to claim an individual’s property that was fairly theirs in another State.
      • Basically, since Scott was legally Sanford’s property in Missouri, Illinois couldn’t rule that he wasn’t. Remember, under the 5th Amendment the government can’t deprive someone of property without due process.
    • The Court found that Congress did not have the authority to abolish slavery in the territories.
      • The Court found that Congress’s power to acquire territories and create governments within those territories was limited, and that the 5th Amendment barred any law that would deprive a slaveholder of his property, such as his slaves, because he had brought them into a free territory.
        • Again, that’s a substantive due process argument.
        • Pro-life Justices point to similarities between this part of the decision and Roe v. Wade, which was based on a similar substantive due process argument.
      • This basically struck down the Missouri Compromise, and significantly contributed to the resentment that led to the Civil War.
  • This case is often cited as the worst decision the US Supreme Court ever made.