Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857), also known as the Dred Scott Decision, was a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It made two main rulings. The first ruling was that African-Americans were not citizens, and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court. The second ruling was that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in any territory acquired subsequent to the creation of the United States.
Given the first ruling, most scholars and many contemporary political figures (including the leadership of the then-new Republican Party) considered that the second ruling was not binding precedent, but mere dictum. The rationale of the Supreme Court regarding the jurisdictional ruling implied that people of African descent (both slave and free) were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens. Since passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, both rulings are superseded and no longer valid precedent. Nonetheless, the case retains historical significance as it is widely regarded as the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court.
The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, stirred debate. The decision was 7–2, and every Justice besides Taney wrote a separate concurrence or dissent. For the first time since Marbury v. Madison, the Court held an Act of Congress to be unconstitutional.
Dred Scott, an African-American slave, had asked a United States Circuit Court to award him his freedom because he and his master had resided in a state (Illinois) and a territory (Wisconsin Territory) where slavery had been banned. Chief Justice Roger Taney, writing for the court, held that Scott, as a person of African ancestry, was not a citizen of the United States and therefore had no right to sue in federal court. This holding was contrary to the practice of numerous states at the time, particularly Free states, where free blacks did in fact enjoy the rights of citizens, such as the right to vote and hold public office. In what is sometimes considered mere obiter dictum, the Court went on to hold that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in federal territories because slaves are personal property and the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution protects property owners against deprivation of their property without due process of law.
In reaching this decision, Taney had hoped to settle the growing controversy surrounding slavery in the United States, but it had the opposite effect. The decision was fiercely debated across the country, as perhaps best exemplified by the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858. Abraham Lincoln, the second-ever Republican nominee for President, was able to win the presidential election in 1860; the stopping of the further expansion of slavery was a key Republican party plank. The decision played an important role in the timing of state secession and the Civil War, although it is extreme to say the decision “caused” the war. The decision is acknowledged for the influential role it played in altering the national political landscape: it is credited with launching Abraham Lincoln’s national political career and ultimately allowing for his election.
Although the Supreme Court has never explicitly overruled the Dred Scott case, the Court stated in the Slaughter-House Cases that at least one part of it had already been overruled by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which begins by stating, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” To which the Court noted:
The first observation we have to make on this clause is, that it puts at rest both the questions which we stated to have been the subject of differences of opinion. It declares that persons may be citizens of the United States without regard to their citizenship of a particular State, and it overturns the Dred Scott decision by making all persons born within the United States and subject to its jurisdiction citizens of the United States.