Of course, these cases were about much, much more, and went to the heart of who was an equal person with equal rights. But, at their hearts, these were cases about jurisdiction, and whether federal Courts could entertain claims deriving from persons deemed legally inferior.
In Johnson v. M’Intosh (which I think has the same flipped comma as M’Cullough v. Maryland), Marshall found that the “Indian inhabitants” are “incapable of transferring the absolute title to others.” However, this was likely dicta. The crux of the opinion sounded in whether the Courts had jurisdiction to even consider the validity of these titles.
At the outset, Marshall stated “the question is whether this title can be recognized in the courts of the United States?”
Marshall concluded it did not. Thus, any grants of land from the “Indian inhabitants,” that conflicted with a grant of land to the Commonwealth of Virginia (and by cession, to the United States) were not cognizable in courts. Plaintiffs with such a claim “do not exhibit a title which can be sustained in the courts of the United States.” In other words, the federal courts lack the jurisdiction to consider the validity of a claim made directly from a Native American tribe to an individual. “Conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny, whatever the private and speculative opinions of individuals may be, respecting the original justice of the claim which has been successfully asserted.” The plaintiffs were out of luck.
Dred Scott, at its heart, was a case about diversity jurisdiction. As Taney wrote, the first question at issue was “Had the Circuit Court of the United States jurisdiction to hear and determine the case between these parties?” If Dred Scott was a citizen of the United States, he could invoke the diversity jurisdiction statute (what is now 28 U.S.C. s. 1331). If Scott was not a citizen, he could not invoke the diversity jurisdiction statute, and his claim must be dismissed.
Stated succinctly by Taney:
But in this case it does appear that the plaintiff was born a slave; and if the facts upon which he relies have not made him free, then it appears affirmatively on the record that he is not a citizen, and consequently his suit against Sandford was not a suit between citizens of different States, and the court had no authority to pass any judgment between the parties. The suit ought, in this view of it, to have been dismissed by the Circuit Court, and its judgment in favor of Sandford is erroneous, and must be reversed.
It is so bizarre to think of Dred Scott in terms of something as mundane as diversity jurisdiction.
Interestingly, Justice Campbell concurred to say Scott could sue in Missouri state court.
Under the Constitution of the United States, his is an incapacity to sue in their courts, while, by the laws of Missouri, the operation of the verdict would be more extensive. I think it a safe conclusion to enforce the lesser disability imposed by the Constitution of the United States, and leave to the plaintiff all his rights in Missouri.
The Missouri Supreme Court opinion is grounded mostly in terms of diversity jurisdiction and choice of law issues (it is a fascinating read, though the procedural posture of this case is a mess).
Both cases that took the postion that certain people were less equal than others were premised on denying those people access to federal jurisdiction.