Monumental Court Cases

Dred Scott vs. Sanford
1. By the mid-1850s, sectional conflict over the extension of slavery into the Western territories threatened to tear the nation apart.With Congress sharply divided, reflecting the divisions in the nation, the Supreme Court took the unusual step of hearing the case of a fugitive slave suing for his freedom. Intended to be the definitive ruling that would settle the controversy threatening the Union for good, the case instead produced a divisive decision that pushed the nation one step closer toward the precipice of civil war. John Marshall, in his time the single most influential advocate for strong National Government, had died in 1835. President Andrew Jackson appointed Roger B. Taney (pronounced Tawney). During his tenure as Chief Justice, Taney upheld strong national power, but with some modifications. Taney endorsed what is known as “dual sovereignty,” which implies that State and federal governments are “foreign” to each other; each is sovereign in its own right. By 1857, Taney presided over a Court that had expanded to nine justices and was divided—four Northerners and five Southerners, including Taney, sat on the bench.

2. Dred Scott was a Missouri slave. Sold to Army surgeon John Emerson in Saint Louis around 1833, Scott was taken to Illinois, a free State, and on to the free Wisconsin Territory before returning to Missouri. When Emerson died in 1843, Scott sued Emerson's widow for his freedom in the Missouri supreme court, claiming that his residence in the “free soil” of Illinois made him a free man. After defeat in State courts, Scott brought suit in a local federal court. Eleven years after Scott's initial suit, the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court.

3. The Court decided 7-2 in favor of the slave owner. Every justice submitted an individual opinion justifying his position, with Chief Justice Taney's being the most influential.

Descenting: When a person enters a free State or territory, the free status overrides the previous condition of servitude. Since slavery was forbidden in the free States and territories by federal and State laws, Dred Scott became free when he entered Illinois and Wisconsin.

Majority: Slaves were considered property, and by law, to deprive a person of property without due process or just compensation violated the 5th Amendment. Dred Scott was still a slave and no master's property rights could be limited or taken away by a State or federal law.

4. Of far more serious consequence, the Court also struck down the Missouri Compromise as unconstitutional, because it deprived property owners (slave owners) of the right to take their property anywhere in the United States, thus depriving them of life, liberty and property under the 5th Amendment. Any line, or law, that limited the right of slave owners to utilize their property was unconstitutional. By doing this he also struck down the idea of popular sovereignty. opular sovereignty, which held that territories could decide whether or not to allow slavery for themselves, had been strongly advocated by Stephen Douglas as the solution to the controversies in the federal territories that dominated the 1850s. This disallowance of popular sovereignty contributed to the national disorder over the spread of slavery.

Marbury v. Madison: established Judicial Review

Schneck v. United States
1. A major effort to promote national unity accompanied America's involvement (1917-1918) in World War I. As a part of this effort, Congress enacted a number of laws severely restricting 1st Amendment freedoms to curb anti-war dissent. In 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which set stiff penalties for uttering and circulating “false” statements intended to interfere with the war effort. Any effort to cause unrest in the military forces or to interfere with the draft was forbidden. In 1918, Congress passed a Sedition Act—the first such act in 120 years—which made it a crime to interfere with the sale of...
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