Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
Issue: In this pre-Civil War case, the question was whether Congress had the constitutional power to prohibit slavery in free territories. A second question was whether the Constitution gave African Americans the right to sue in federal court.
Result: The 1857 Court answered no on both accounts: Congress could not prohibit slavery in territories, and African Americans also had no right to sue in federal court. In reaching these answers, the Court, interpreting the Constitution as it existed before the Civil War Amendments (Constitutional Amendments 13, 14, and 15) abolished slavery, concluded that people of African descent had none of the rights of citizens. The Court further reasoned that slaves were "property" and therefore could not be taken from their owners without due process.
Importance: The Dred Scott case became a central issue in the debate surrounding the expansion of slavery and further fueled the flames leading to the Civil War.