Miranda Rights Reread

The Nation, July 17, 2000 | Go to article overview

Miranda Rights Reread


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. …

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