A U.S. Supreme Court decision from 155 years ago that helped ignite the Civil War came to life again Tuesday in the Indiana Supreme Court and a nearby university as part of a Black History Month observation to teach students and attorneys about the importance of the Dred Scott decision on constitutional rights.
The state Supreme Court and Office of the Indiana Attorney General hosted the program for students from five Indianapolis area high schools, exploring the legal and cultural aspects of the 1857 decision from the Supreme Court of the United States.
An African-American man held in slavery in the 1850s, Dred Scott sued to gain his freedom and took his case all the way to the nation’s highest court. Though a lower court had freed Scott from slavery, the SCOTUS denied Scott and other enslaved persons their legal rights, resulting in Scott being enslaved again. Though Scott and his wife, Harriett, eventually were freed, he did not live to see the political outcome of the 7-2 Supreme Court ruling. Now considered a pivotal turning point in American history, the Dred Scott decision led to the political rise of Abraham Lincoln, secession of the slaveholding Southern states, outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, abolition of slavery nationwide, and the passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
At Tuesday’s presentation in the Indiana Supreme Court chamber, speakers included Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who wrote the book “Am I Not A Man? The Dred Scott Story,” and Dred Scott’s great-great granddaughter Lynne M. Jackson. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller attended Shurtleff’s presentation on the Dred Scott decision a few years ago in the old SCOTUS chamber of the U.S. Capitol, and Zoeller was so impressed he asked Shurtleff to present it to Indiana students and attorneys.
Shurtleff described the legal and historical ramifications of the decision, while Jackson provided the family perspective of her famous ancestor who fought for his freedom in the courts and lost but inspired the antislavery Abolitionist movement. Students from Arsenal Tech, Covenant Christian, Lawrence North, Plainfield and Silver Creek high schools read aloud excerpts from the decision.
“Behind the historic cases lawyers study are real people who faced real hardships. The Dred Scott decision called into question the basic American notion of equality and today it reminds us that the system of justice is imperfect. Though it took the pain and suffering of the Civil War, justice eventually prevailed to right a wrong, and that’s something students today should understand,” Zoeller said.
On Tuesday afternoon at Martin University in Indianapolis, Shurleff and Jackson presented a Continuing Legal Education session to attorneys, focusing on legal analysis of the decision and its impact. Zoeller served as moderator of that program.
The day’s programs are also sponsored by the Indiana Bar Foundation, Martin University and the Indiana Supreme Court Legal History Lecture Series with support from the Indiana Commission on Continuing Legal Education. The student event is also sponsored by the Indiana Supreme Court’s “Courts in the Classroom” program.