Friday, June 23, 2017

Obstruction of Justice Under Wraps: the Dred Scott Case

 U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly tweets that he is the victim of a “witch hunt”.  Special counsel Robert Mueller is conducting an investigation into the Trump administration’s dealings with Russia and he may be investigating whether the president hnmself has obstructed justice.  If Mueller concludes that Trump is guilty of obstruction, the next step would almost certainly be that some members of the House of Representatives would draft articles of impeachment.

In some cases, a presidential obstruction of justice can be hidden from public view, while still having immense consequences. One such case reached its climax on the eve of the American Civil War.

In1857, U.S. President-elect James Buchanan secretly interfered with how the Supreme Court would rule on the status of a slave by the name of Dred Scott. The U.S. was descending into deepening conflict as a consequence of the twinned issues of slavery and the status of slavery in territories of the U.S. that were not yet states.

Dred Scott’s owner, a doctor from Missouri, had taken him for a time to a territory within the U.S. where slavery was illegal.

Following the death of his owner in 1843, Dred Scott tried to gain freedom from his new owner, the doctor’s widow. A Missouri Court reached a verdict in Scott’s favour, ruling that a slave who had been taken to free territory should be free. Scott’s new owner appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which in turn ruled in her favour. 

Eventually, Dred Scott appealed his case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

James Buchanan, a pro slavery Democrat from Pennsylvania, became convinced that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Scott case had to be rigged to settle the explosive issue of slavery in the territories once and for all. 

The court, at the time, had five southern judges among its nine members.  Buchanan wanted to ensure that should the verdict go against Scott, it would not be seen merely as a decision on behalf of the slave owning south.  The president-elect wrote secretly to Supreme Court Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania to urge him to side with the southerners in the Scott case.  Grier did as he was asked and wrote back to Buchanan acknowledging that he was well aware of the impropriety of what was being done.  “We will not let any others of our brethren know,” he wrote.  He concluded that what had happened was “contrary to our usual practice.”  It was obstruction of justice, pure and simple.

Then, a few days before Buchanan was inaugurated in March 1857, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger B. Taney, who had been born into a wealthy slave owning family, told the president-elect, in another blatant violation of the separation between the judiciary and the executive branch, that the verdict was going to go against Dred Scott. Armed with this prior knowledge, Buchanan stated disingenuously in his inaugural address that when the verdict in the Scott case was announced in a few days, “in common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit.”

The victim in this shabby deal was a slave, fighting for his freedom.  In the court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Taney proclaimed that blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  He concluded that the rights proclaimed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 were not intended to apply to black slaves.

But the verdict, so improperly reached, generated a storm of protest across the North. Abraham Lincoln, then a rising Illinois politician declared that he believed “the Dred Scott decision is erroneous.”  In his analysis of the case, Lincoln pointed ahead to arguments he would make in his Gettysburg Address as president of the United States during the Civil War.  On the meaning of the Declaration of Independence, he said its authors had considered that all men were created equal, equal in “ ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this they meant.”

Buchanan’s obstruction fanned the flames of conflict. The Dred Scott verdict helped drive the U.S. into the war that would lead to the abolition of slavery.