The United States Supreme Court has historically enjoyed a high degree of respect for its decisions. But that does not mean that the Court has never faltered. Perhaps no Supreme Court decision is more infamous than Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).
It all started in 1834, when an army doctor named Emerson was sent from his home in Missouri, a slave state, to Illinois, a free state. Emerson took his slave, Dred Scott, along with him. A few years later, Emerson, Scott, and Scott’s family returned to Missouri.
After Emerson died, Scott attempted to buy his freedom from Emerson’s widow, but she refused. Scott then sued for his freedom in Missouri state court, arguing that due to the Missouri Compromise Act, he and his family became free when they were taken into free territory.
A man named John Sanford (fun fact: Sanford’s name was misspelled “Sandford” in the U.S. Reporter) later took ownership of Scott, and Scott sued for his freedom again in federal court.
The case ultimately came before the United States Supreme Court, which had to decide whether slaves and their descendants were citizens under the Constitution and whether the Missouri Compromise was constitutional.
Ultimately, the Court concluded that slaves and their descendants were not citizens and, thus, Scott had no right to sue in federal court. The decision has been roundly decried, and subsequent Supreme Court Chief Justice Evans Hughes famously referred to the opinion as a “self-inflicted wound.”
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