The Move to Federal Court
In 1854 Scott’s lawyers initiated a suit against Sanford in the U.S. Circuit Court in St. Louis. Scott could not directly sue for his freedom, but he could use the federal courts to test his freedom indirectly. The U.S Constitution allows a citizen of one state to sue a citizen of another under what is called ‘‘diversity jurisdiction.’’ This phrase simply means that citizens of different states can sue each other in federal courts. As long as Irene Emerson lived in Missouri, Scott could not claim a diversity of citizenship because he also lived in Missouri. But when Sanford, his new owner, moved to New York, a diversity of residence was clearly created: Scott lived in Missouri; Sanford lived in New York.The problem for Scott—and this would become a key to the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court—was what constitutes citizenship. Scott was a resident of Missouri, but was he a citizen of Missouri?
Scott’s new lawyer, Roswell Field, made a complicated argument in federal court. Field argued that Scott was free on the basis of his residence at Fort Snelling, and that if he was free he must be a citizen for the purpose of diversity jurisdiction. He did not argue that Scott had all the rights of a citizen; instead, he argued that if Scott was not a slave he must be able to sue as citizen of Missouri. On this basis, Field brought suit against Sanford for false imprisonment and battery against Scott, his wife, and their two daughters. These claims were really a subterfuge for gaining a hearing before the Court to test Scott’s freedom. Scott assumed that Sanford would argue that Scott was a slave, and that he therefore had a right to imprison or beat him. Scott’s answer would be that he was free, and that Sanford was not, therefore, entitled to imprison or beat him. This would set the stage for a trial on Scott’s freedom. If the Court decided he was free, then Sanford would lose and pay minimal damages, and Scott would go free. Sanford would, in fact, make these arguments, but only after he made a more important one. Sanford’s first answer to Scott’s suit was not about ownership, but about race. Sanford argued that, as a black man, Scott could never be a citizen, and thus could never sue in federal court.
Plea in Abatment a pleading by the defendant, as a response to a plaintiff’s claim, where the defendant does not dispute the plaintiff’s claims but objects to its form or the time or place where it is asserted, thereby having an excuse which a judge should consider because it could affect the judge’s sentence.
Sanford did not say that Scott could not sue because he was a slave. Rather, he argued that even if Scott were free, he could not vindicate that freedom in federal court because blacks could never be considered citizens under the Constitution, and thus could never sue in diversity. In making this argument, Sanford’s lawyers filed a ‘‘plea in abatement,’’ asking the Judge to abate, or end, the case immediately because a black could not be a plaintiff in a diversity suit in federal court.
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Wells rejected Sanford’s claim in the plea in abatement. Judge Wells held that if Scott was free, then he was entitled to sue in federal court. However, after hearing the evidence in the case, Judge Wells ruled that Scott’s status as a slave or a free person could only be decided by Missouri law, and the Missouri Supreme Court had already ruled that Scott was still a slave. In reaching this decision, Wells ignored the force of the Missouri Compromise and did not consider whether the Missouri Supreme Court had the power to overrule, or ignored the federal law that made slavery illegal in the federal territory north of Missouri.