U.S. Supreme Court Trends

By Williams, Charles F. | Social Education, October 2000 | Go to article overview

U.S. Supreme Court Trends


Williams, Charles F., Social Education


THE 73 CASES decided by the Supreme Court during the 1999-2000 term included more headline-grabbing decisions than any term in recent memory. Yet, as the following selections suggest, the sum total of the Court's work--especially in the perennially contested areas occupied by criminal law and the First Amendment-defied easy labeling as representing large "conservative" or "liberal" trends.

True, the Justices' familiar ideological positioning generally remained in place this term, with Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter and Stevens often occupying the Court's left wing, and Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas typically anchoring the right. But it was Justices O'Connor and Kennedy, the crucial swing votes in the center, who made the difference in a remarkable 20 cases decided by narrow 5-4 margins-a fact not lost upon any of the political parties in this presidential election year.

Criminal Law

Miranda Upheld: Dickerson v. United States (No. 99-5525)

The Case: Dickerson, or "The Miranda case" as it became known among Court watchers, turned on the question of whether the Court had announced a rule of constitutional law when it decided in 1966 that a suspect must be warned that he "has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can be used against him in a court of law, that he has the right to the presence of an attorney, and that if he cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for him prior to any questioning if he so desires" Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

By a 7-2 vote, the Court decided it had.

While, thanks primarily to TV cop shows, much of the public has assumed these warnings are required by the Constitution,(1) the Court has actually wrestled with the question for some time, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes another. Finally, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals brought the issue to a head when it ruled that a suspect's confession could be admitted into evidence against him even though he had not been read his Miranda rights.

The Fourth Circuit noted that shortly after Miranda was decided, Congress passed a law, known as Section 3501, which purported to overrule Miranda. It said that, contrary to Miranda, any confession should be admissible in evidence so long as it is voluntarily given. While the Justice Department never made any use of this law, it remained on the books, untested. Then, in this case, the Fourth Circuit concluded that it was good law. It concluded that giving suspects Miranda warnings was one way of ensuring that any confession they gave would be voluntary, but that Congress had the power to say that these warnings were not mandatory, and that confessions could be admitted into evidence without complying with Miranda. All the prosecution needed to do, the Fourth Circuit held, was to demonstrate that, under the "totality of the circumstances," the suspect's confession was voluntary.

The Decision: On review in the Supreme Court, the Justices generally saw two alternatives. They could rule that the Miranda warnings were in the nature of rules of evidence that Congress could supersede. Or they could role that the warnings were constitutionally required by the Fifth Amendment guarantee that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself."

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Rehnquist concluded that Miranda did announce a constitutional rule-and therefore that Congress could not supersede it legislatively. Of course, even though Congress lacked the power to overrule Miranda, the Court itself could still do so. Rehnquist, however, said the Court would "decline" this suggestion. At this point in our nation's history, he said, Miranda has "become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture."

Therefore, although he would not necessarily agree with Miranda's reasoning "were we addressing the issue in the first instance," the Chief Justice said that principles of stare decisis (respect for precedent) "weigh heavily against over-ruling it now.

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