Today in History, March 6: 1857 – The Dredd Scott Decision. Dredd Scott was a slave whose owner had traveled and lived in “free states” and had promised him his freedom. When his owner died, Scott sued for his freedom, because he had lived in “free” states. The case worked it’s way up the chain to the Supreme Court, which at that time was loaded with Southerners. Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote the majority opinion that declared that no slave could possibly be a citizen, therefore they had no standing to sue. Also that the Federal Government had no right to regulate slavery in the states and territories. Obviously a biased, politically motivated opinion, the decision, in part, led to the horrific, devastating American Civil War. So our lesson is complex. The Supreme Court, while our highest court, is not infallible. It’s bad decisions lead to horrific consequences for the nation. It DOES make political decisions. And this theory does not end with Dredd Scott.
One has to wonder what Roger Taney was thinking when he had to swear President Abraham Lincoln in to office in his position as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He forever tainted and brought into question decisions made by the Court.
Today in History, February 24: 1840 – US Representative John Quincy Adams, a former President, begins his defense of slaves aboard the Amistad, a Spanish slave ship which was transporting them to Cuba to be sold. The slaves killed the ship’s Captain and forced the crew to sail them back to Africa…the crew instead took them to the US. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where Adams argued for their return to their home. He won the argument….but not the funds to return them. The funds would have to be raised from sympathetic Americans.
Adams would continue to serve in the House until he collapsed at his desk, and died two days later on February 23, 1848. Several of his decendants would serve prominently in the government.
Today in History, February 24: 1803 – Marbury vs. Madison. The Supreme Court establishes the principle of Judicial Review. In a case fraught with typical American skullduggery, the US Supreme Court gains it’s power. In the election of 1800, Thomas Jefferson had defeated the one term John Adams. In the time before the end of his term, Adams appointed as many judges and justice of the peace as he could, even working with his fellow party members to increase the number of judges. This resulted in the infamous “midnight judges” that were appointed at the last minute. Adams’ Secretary of State, John Marshall, wasn’t able to deliver all of the commissions to the judges and justices of the peace in time before Adams’ term ended, but figured the new Secretary of State, James Madison, would do so. He did not. Realizing they’d been snookered, Jefferson and Madison’s party did not deliver the new commissions. One of the Justices of the Peace, William Marbury, sued. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court…whose Chief Justice now was…John Marshall. Marshall made a decision that was a master stroke. The Court decided that the commissions should have been delivered…but at the same time decided that the court could not enforce the decision because Marbury did not have standing to file suit. While this initially seemed to emasculate the Court…in the end the decision established that the Court could render Congressional acts Unconstitutional if it chose to do so. The are dozens of examples of why appointments to the Court are important, not the least of which we are watching play out now.
Today in History, January 31: 1801 – John Marshall is appointed as the fourth Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. His decisions would make the Supreme Court the true 3rd segment of the American Government, a “check and balance” of the other two. This only gives us faith in our government when the court makes decisions based on law, and not on politically biased opinions. Marshall, the longest serving Chief Justice, would serve for 34 years, taking part in over 1,000 decisions. He would affect law through six presidencies.