Miranda Case Latest from 4th Circuit to Supreme Court

Article excerpt

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, arguably the most conservative federal appeals court in the country, has another of its decisions before the Supreme Court today.

The justices will hear the case, United States vs. Dickerson, in which the 4th Circuit ruled last year that the 1966 Miranda decision - which advises suspects of their protection against self-incrimination and their right to an attorney - isn't a sacred cow defense attorneys can hide behind.

Across the board - from employment rights to criminal justice to constitutional rights - the 4th Circuit has become one of the most boldly conservative federal courts in the nation, having upheld Virginia's abortion restrictions and striking down race-based school admission policies.

It was a shock to civil libertarians when Miranda was challenged at all, but no surprise that the challenge came from the 4th Circuit.

"That is an example of their activism," said Kent Willis, executive director for the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"The unusual twist in their ruling is they came to a conclusion that neither one of the [principle] parties argued," Mr. Willis said. Rather, the court agreed with an argument made in a "friend of the court" brief.

He also said it was remarkable that the court chose to take on Miranda when at least a dozen other federal courts, including some conservative ones, had reviewed the doctrine and found no grounds to challenge it.

Self-proclaimed conservatives applaud the 4th Circuit for its sometimes-controversial rulings.

"I think [the court] has a lot of courage," said Curt Levey, a lawyer and director of legal and public affairs for the Center for Individual Rights in the District. "A lot of times, I think they're willing to do politically unpopular things when it's mandated by law."

Mr. Levey's group argued before the 4th Circuit on behalf of two Virginia Tech football players accused of raping a student. The student, Christy Brzonkala, sued for damages under the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which allows victims of sexual assault to sue in federal courts.

But the 4th Circuit ruled Congress overstepped its authority in writing the law on something that should be left to states. The case is on appeal to the Supreme Court.

"Because the 4th is one of the smaller circuits, it has allowed the court to develop its own personality," said David Botkins, spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley. "Yet the justices retain their independence. There is a collegial atmosphere to the court with all the civility representative of the states in the circuit."

The appeals court's jurisdiction is Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia. Any decision the court makes is binding in those states, unless overturned or modified by the Supreme Court.

Among its most notable decisions, the 4th Circuit upheld an abortion parental-notification statute and ruled that Virginia may keep its ban on partial-birth abortions in place while the case is on appeal - the first time an appeals court has allowed such a ban to remain.

Those decisions are some of the solid victories for Mr. Earley.

"The justices of the 4th Circuit are intellectual heavyweights," Mr. Botkins said. "The opinions we get are well-reasoned and deliberative. …