Legacy of Dred Scott: Racisim in U.S. Courts

By Zulu Ali, Esq.

Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) is a landmark case by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court held that black people, whether enslaved or free, could not be American citizens and had no standing to sue in federal court thus, in essence, divesting the Court of Jurisdiction to any cases brought by a black person. The Chief Justice wrote that at the time the Constitution was adopted “ blacks had been “regarded as beings of an inferior order” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Four years after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Dred Scott, the Civil War began in 1861. In 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves free only in Southern states. From 1865 to 1870, the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments were enacted. These amendment symbolically prohibited slavery and prohibited the denial of voting rights based on race. However, the reality was decades of struggle by African Americans to get the U.S. to recognize their rights of full citizenship.

The civil rights advocates and attorneys, of the past who fought hard to change law, through the courts, when the laws were unjust have become just that, the past. The consequences of advocating for changes in the courts and against established unjust laws and principles are dire and severe. The courts maintain ways of punishing persons and attorneys with terminating sanctions and other methods when matters are pursued that do not coincide with status quo or what is often described as clogging the courts.

The courts set precedence in matters ranging from procedural to substantive issues. Controlling or precedence setting cases are generally followed by courts to maintain a unified way in which decisions are made. However, when those decisions are challenged it is done so at great risk. The risk one may take is that the court will completely shut the doors by terminating the entire matter prior to being heard through pretrial or prehearing litigation prompted by opposing parties or the court itself. In more severe cases, the court may punish the litigant and his attorney if the court does not or will not understand the issues or to send a message to those who dare challenge the status quo. Sanctions can range from simply terminating the matter entirely to monetary costs.

Procedurally, courts maintain broad discretion when it comes to dismissing cases brought before it. Dismissals based on procedural matters include jurisdiction or prejudgment of cases before they are ripe. The problem is that procedural dismissals and terminating sanctions can serve as a front for foreclosing cases that a court may oppose for an inappropriate reason; or, prevent righteous challenges to changes when a court relies too heavily on prior decisions that may be unjust. Judicial inconvenience and economy often outweigh fairness and justice.

The legacy of Dred Scott continues to linger in our courts. The legacy of Dred Scott is that the founders did not intend for rights, bestowed by the constitution, to be enjoyed by everyone and that the judicial process can be manipulated in a fashion that forecloses access to the courts based on improper reasons.

The idea of due process, rights, and fairness for everyone continues to be an idea that people hope for and fight and die for; however, the Dred Scott legacy still continues in courts around the country.

The courts, as institutions charged with administering justice, have maintained a constant process of carrying out its duties in a manner that has consistently and disproportionately impacted blacks and minorities in a way that deprives them of true justice and equality in our courts. Blacks, minorities, other economically disadvantaged persons are typically unable to pay for the costs and navigate through the maze of the judicial process. The costs and maze implemented by the courts by the procedural process serves as a catalyst to the denial of seeking rights and challenges before they can be heard on the merits.

A paradigm shift would need to begin with severely limiting the courts ability to terminate cases before they can be adjudicated and providing a climate that encourages litigants and attorneys to challenge and change unjust laws and judicial precedence.

Until there is an overhaul or shifting in the paradigm, blacks and the economically disadvantaged will be disproportionately affected and denied full access to justice.

In the final analysis, we will never see true justice and equality until the nation changes the paradigm long solidified by the U.S. Supreme Court in Dred Scott.