Dred Scott, Plantiff In Error v. John F. A. Sandford

Supreme Court of the United States
60 U.S. 393 (How.)
Argued : February 11 14, 1856, February 15 18, 1856
Decided : March 6, 1857

Decision written by Associate Justice Peter Vivian Daniel ... page 3

However late this objection has been made, or may be made, in any cause in an inferior or appellate court of the United States, it must be considered and decided before any court can move one farther step in the cause, as any movement is necessarily to exercise the jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is the power to hear and determine the subject matter in controversy between the parties to a suit, to adjudicate or exercise any judicial power over them. The question is whether on the case before the court their action is judicial or extrajudicial, with or without the authority of law to render a judgment or decree upon the rights of the litigant parties. A motion to dismiss a cause pending in the courts of the United States is not analogous to a plea to the jurisdiction of a court of common law or equity in England; there, the superior courts have a general jurisdiction over all persons within the realm and all causes of action between them. It depends on the subject matter, whether the jurisdiction shall be exercised by a court of law or equity, but that court to which it appropriately belongs can act judicially upon the party and the subject of the suit unless it shall be made apparent to the court that the judicial determination of the case has been withdrawn from the court of general jurisdiction to an inferior and limited one. It is a necessary presumption that the court of general jurisdiction can act upon the given case when nothing to the [p474] contrary appears; hence has arisen the rule that the party claiming an exemption from its process must set out the reason by a special plea in abatement, and show that some inferior court of law or equity has the exclusive cognizance of the case; otherwise the superior court must proceed in virtue of its general jurisdiction. A motion to dismiss therefore cannot be entertained, as it does not disclose a case of exception, and, if a plea in abatement is put in, it must not only make out the exception, but point to the particular court to which the case belongs. There are other classes of cases where the objection to the jurisdiction is of a different nature, as on a bill in chancery that the subject matter is cognizable only by the King in Council, or that the parties defendant cannot be brought before any municipal court on account of their sovereign character or the nature of the controversy, or to the very common cases which present the question, whether the cause belong to a court of law or equity. To such cases, a plea in abatement would not be applicable, because the plaintiff could not sue in an inferior court. The objection goes to a denial of any jurisdiction of a municipal court in the one class of cases, and to the jurisdiction of any court of equity or of law in the other, on which last the court decides according to its discretion.

An objection to jurisdiction on the ground of exemption from the process of the court in which the suit is brought, or the manner in which a defendant is brought into it, is waived by appearance and pleading to issue, but when the objection goes to the power of the court over the parties or the subject matter, the defendant need not, for he cannot, give the plaintiff a better writ. Where an inferior court can have no jurisdiction of a case of law or equity, the ground of objection is not taken by plea in abatement, as an exception of the given case from the otherwise general jurisdiction of the court; appearance does not cure the defect of judicial power, and it may be relied on by plea, answer, demurrer, or at the trial or hearing. As a denial of jurisdiction over the subject matter of a suit between parties within the realm, over which and whom the court has power to act, cannot be successful in an English court of general jurisdiction, a motion like the present could not be sustained consistently with the principles of its constitution. But as this court is one of limited and special original jurisdiction, its action must be confined to the particular cases, controversies, and parties over which the Constitution and laws have authorized it to act, any proceeding without the limits prescribed is coram non judice, and its action a nullity. And whether the want or excess of power is objected by a party or is apparent [p475] to the court, it must surcease its action or proceed extrajudicially.

In the constructing of pleadings either in abatement or in bar, every fact or position constituting a portion of the public law, or of known or general history, is necessarily implied. Such fact or position need not be specially averred and set forth; it is what the world at large and every individual are presumed to know -- nay, are bound to know and to be governed by.

If, on the other hand, there exist facts or circumstances by which a particular case would be withdrawn or exempted from the influence of public law or necessary historical knowledge, such facts and circumstances form an exception to the general principle, and these must be specially set forth and established by those who would avail themselves of such exception.

Now the following are truths which a knowledge of the history of the world, and particularly of that of our own country, compels us to know -- that the African negro race never have been acknowledged as belonging to the family of nations; that, as amongst them, there never has been known or recognised by the inhabitants of other countries anything partaking of the character of nationality, or civil or political polity; that this race has been by all the nations of Europe regarded as subjects of capture or purchase, as subjects of commerce or traffic; and that the introduction of that race into every section of this country was not as members of civil or political society, but as slaves, as property in the strictest sense of the term.

In the plea in abatement, the character or capacity of citizen on the part of the plaintiff is denied, and the causes which show the absence of that character or capacity are set forth by averment. The verity of those causes, according to the settled rules of pleading, being admitted by the demurrer, it only remained for the Circuit Court to decide upon their legal sufficiency to abate the plaintiff's action. And it now becomes the province of this court to determine whether the plaintiff below (and in error here), admitted to be a negro of African descent, whose ancestors were of pure African blood and were brought into this country and sold as negro slaves -- such being his status, and such the circumstances surrounding his position -- whether he can, by correct legal induction from that status and those circumstances, be clothed with the character and capacities of a citizen of the State of Missouri?

It may be assumed as a postulate that to a slave, as such, there appertains and can appertain no relation, civil or political, with the State or the Government. He is himself strictly property, to be used in subserviency to the interests, the convenience, [p476] or the will, of his owner, and to suppose, with respect to the former, the existence of any privilege or discretion, or of any obligation to others incompatible with the magisterial rights just defined, would be by implication, if not directly, to deny the relation of master and slave, since none can possess and enjoy as his own that which another has a paramount right and power to withhold. Hence it follows necessarily that a slave, the peculium or property of a master, and possessing within himself no civil nor political rights or capacities, cannot be a CITIZEN. For who, it may be asked, is a citizen? What do the character and status of citizen import? Without fear of contradiction, it does not import the condition of being private property, the subject of individual power and ownership. Upon a principle of etymology alone, the term citizen, as derived from civitas, conveys the ideas of connection or identification with the State or Government, and a participation of its functions. But beyond this, there is not, it is believed, to be found in the theories of writers on Government or in any actual experiment heretofore tried, an exposition of the term citizen which has not been understood as conferring the actual possession and enjoyment, or the perfect right of acquisition and enjoyment, of an entire equality of privileges, civil and political. ... more on Judge Daniel's decision in the Dred Scott case

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