It is impossible to overstate the importance–politically and legally–of the Supreme Court’s recent 7-to-2 reaffirmation of its 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona. The original Miranda case established clear rules governing confessions and, equally important, empowered the federal courts as enforcers. Although police have found ways around Miranda, and conservative Supreme Court rulings have diminished its breadth over the years, the case still establishes a symbolic standard and a set of practical procedures that have become “embedded in routine police practice,” as Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in his majority opinion on June 26 in Dickerson v. United States.
Dickerson involved an accused Virginia bank robber who made a “voluntary” confession to the FBI before being advised of his rights. The conservative judges of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, whose extremist criminal-justice jurisprudence has already been slapped down by the Supreme Court in several death penalty cases, ruled that Dickerson’s confession should survive this blatant Miranda violation. The Fourth Circuit cited a never-enforced section of the federal criminal code, passed by Congress in 1968, establishing a weaker standard for confessions. It was this act of legislative overreach that the Supreme Court quashed.
In some ways, Dickerson was only a grudging reaffirmation. Rehnquist’s opinion suggested that Justices might not agree with Miranda‘s “reasoning and its resulting rule” were it being argued today. By invoking the stability of the precedent rather than its basic wisdom, the decision left room for further chipping away at Miranda‘s procedures and enforcement power. In this sense Dickerson is like Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case that reaffirmed “the essential holding” of Roe v. Wade, even while encouraging states to find new ways to regulate women’s access to abortion. Casey‘s ambiguities have led to ongoing incursions like the Nebraska “partial birth” abortion law, which the court narrowly and rightly overturned on June 28 as an “undue burden” to women’s exercise of reproductive rights.
The big surprise on Dickerson was Rehnquist himself, whose vote with the majority left dissenting Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to flail about on the conservative margin. What seems to have motivated Rehnquist was not loyalty to Miranda‘s protections but rather institutional protectiveness. Miranda, his opinion noted, is a constitutional decision of the Supreme Court; if an act of Congress could overrule Miranda, the Supreme Court’s authority over other issues would not long survive unchallenged.
Still, in the midst of national alarm over policing scandals and false convictions, the reaffirmation of Miranda after thirty-four years could not be more timely. The court’s ruling in Dickerson does not just insure that Miranda‘s famous language will be enshrined in another generation of cop shows. Along with Illinois Governor George Ryan’s death penalty moratorium, it signals what appears to be a pendulum swing away from unbridled vengeance as the driving force of American criminal law.
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The Supreme Court’s refusal to extend an Appeals Court order keeping Elián González in the United States put an end to one of the last sorry chapters of the cold war. Elián’s return home, not coincidentally, came in the same week that GOP leaders agreed to relax trade sanctions against Cuba. The public, dismayed at the power of the anti-Castro forces to determine a little boy’s future as well as US foreign policy, had clearly said, Enough.