Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dredd Scott & the definition of property

Taney's Dred Scott vs Sanford has almost intrigued me since I read it my "Politics & Society" Seminar at St. John's College way back in 2003. It's a decision that just flat out seems wrong, but, from a legal standpoint, it's hard to tell why. Clearly slavery is morally wrong, but the supreme court isn't really supposed to judge on morals, but only on the laws. It's up to congress to pass laws that are good and just. Nonetheless, I still feel that Taney made the wrong decision, and I think it all comes down to a state's right to define what is considered to be property.

The decision impinged on states' ability to prohibit slaves from their territory. It made it so that one could only buy slaves in slave states, but one could own them anywhere. But the perception prior to the decision was that states could both prohibit ownership and sale. How did chief justice Taney do this?

Taney had been considered a very good chief justice prior to Dred Scott vs Sanford, a very conservative constitutionalist who found some good legal compromises, but with Dred Scott he really dropped the ball, and his reputation has been tarnished ever since.

Taney made a number of arguments, but I think the critical argument in his decision was that for Dred Scott to be freed would be a violation of the fifth amendment, specifically that no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." To free Dred Scott would be to deprive Sanford of his rightful property without due process.

The problem I have with this argument really comes down to whether states have the right to define what is and what can be considered property. In Virginia, where Dred Scott was born, as well as other slave states where he lived, like Louisiana and Missouri, he was considered to be a slave and thus property. But when he went to Illinois, according to that state, it was not possible to own a human, thus he wouldn't be considered property. Thus, the fifth amendment wouldn't apply in this case. Unfortunately, Taney didn't think that the states had the right to define independently what is property. The individual states were beholden to the original status of "slave" slapped on Dred Scott at birth, unless he had been freed according to the due process of one of the other slave states.

It raises the question of whether states have the right to determine ambiguous legal definitions. Most relevant to the current situation would be the definition of marriage. At present, states are free to deny recognition of homosexual marriages. States are free to define marriage as exclusively heterosexual. The federal government could intervene, but only by passing an amendment to the constitution.

There are other cases where this question of definition could come up. For example, do states have the right to define what is murder, such as with abortion or doctor-assisted suicide? Do states have the right to define who is a minor? Is someone a minor up until 18 or 17 or 16 or 20? Can states decide how to define a religion? Is scientology or secular humanism or freemasonry a religion? Can states define what are drugs? Are nutritional supplements or herbal remedies or homeopathic medicines drugs?

There are in fact many little cases like this. And maybe it would be better if states had more freedom of defining key legal terms.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brief answer: yes, states may define any legal term they want, subject to the Supremacy Clause. (i.e. if a federal statute, the US Constitution, or a US Supreme Court decision is not violated, states may do what they want)