Supreme Court rulings brings to mind the baseball cliché that “it’s not over until it’s over.” But unlike baseball, the Court works with rules that frequently change for many reasons, including because the umpires themselves have…
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John Sanford, a case the Court had decided 16 years earlier.1 The two cases seem to have little in common.
Dred Scott addressed certain controversial issues about race, including that slaves and their descendents could never be U.S. citizens. It had nothing to do with Louisiana or meatpacking, nor at the time of the ruling had the 13th and 14th Amendments yet been proposed, much less adopted. So the circumstances of the two cases seem unconnected.2
But scholars such as Hiroshi Fukurai note that the Slaughterhouse Court was able to connect the two cases “due to the passage of the 14th Amendment.”3 That Amendment had been adopted in 1868, 11 years after the 1857 Dred Scott ruling and five years before Slaughterhouse, but the Supreme Court had not yet had an opportunity to interpret its meaning. Slaughterhouse presented the first opportunity, and thereby also created a path for the Court to revisit Dred Scott. The result was the Slaughterhouse Court declared Dred Scott to have been overruled five years earlier by the first clause in the 14th Amendment, which “declared [the negro] to be a citizen of the United States.”4
As summarized by Donald Lively, “Five years after the [14th] amendment’s adoption, the Supreme Court seized an opportunity [in Slaughterhouse] to pass its own judgment on the extent to which state power and interests had been federalized.”5 In short, although it took several years, the Court in Slaughterhouse finally could return to Dred Scott via the path created by the 14th Amendment and, in so doing, substantially overturned it.6
During the U.S. Senate hearings on John Roberts’s nomination to be Chief Justice, he was asked what the Court should consider before overturning a prior case. Roberts replied that “it is a jolt to the legal system to overrule a precedent” and listed several cautionary considerations. Nevertheless, he had earlier characterized Dred Scott as
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