Supreme Court Watch
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GWEN IFILL: Two major decisions at the court today: The Justices upheld the constitutionality of the landmark 1966 Miranda ruling, and they threw out California’s primary system. For more on these two rulings, we’re joined by NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg, national legal affairs correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.
Jan, the court decided to uphold this landmark ruling by a surprising 7-2 margin. What went into that?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, that’s right. Going into this case I think the opponent of Miranda had hoped of course that they would win, but they certainly didn’t think they would lose by such a wide margin. And in an opinion that was written by the chief justice, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Rehnquist was one of the early critics of Miranda, and in fact in a 1974 case, he doubted that it was constitutionally required, and that provided a lot of ammunition for Miranda opponents.
Then today we have the Chief Justice affirming Miranda. And for one of the most anxiously awaited cases of the term, Rehnquist really provided high drama. He announced in the courtroom today that he was going to explain the outcome of this case. And then in very strong terms he recited the four warnings before explaining what the ruling would be. He said, you know, you have a right to remain silent, anything you say can be used against you, you have a right to an attorney, and one will be appointed for you if you cannot afford one. It was very dramatic, and then he with a went on to explain from the bench why the Miranda ruling was required by the Constitution, why Congress couldn’t overrule it, and why this court would not do so.
GWEN IFILL: Remind us again of how this case came to court.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, in many ways the court had to get involved because a federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, said that Congress had a effectively overruled Miranda when it passed a 1968 law that said judges didn’t have to decide whether or not police had given Miranda warnings when deciding whether to admit confessions into evidence — but instead could go back to the old way of evaluating confessions and see if those confessions were made voluntarily.
Now, that was the ruling by the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and that came about in the case from Virginia involving an accused bank robber named Charles Dickerson. A federal judge in 1997 suppressed statements that Mr. Dickerson had made.
The federal judge found that he was never given his Miranda warnings. Local prosecutors said, ah, but wait a minute, those Miranda warnings aren’t required; they pointed to that 1968 law, dusted off the books, it had never really been followed, over 30 years old. And the Fourth Circuit, like I said, bought that argument that the ’68 law should prevail, sending this issue then directly to the Supreme Court.
GWEN IFILL: But the key question, which was being, the court had to decide today was whether the Miranda ruling itself is protected by the Constitution.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right. Whether or not it was required by the Constitution so that it, and whether or not those warnings were required to protect — but whether they were required to protect a suspect’s right against self incrimination or whether instead the warnings were this kind of procedural safeguard that Congress could modify. But in its opinion today, the 7-2 ruling, the court very strongly emphasized that Miranda clearly was required by the Constitution. And that Congress could not overrule it by going back to the old way of doing things.
GWEN IFILL: Justice Scalia wrote the dissent, and he brought up what you just brought up, which was that the court in the past had suggested that maybe it thought Miranda was not Constitutionally protected.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Yeah, he right off the bat in his dissent, which we very critical of the majority, said the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy and O’Connor have all suggested in the past that Miranda was kind of a procedural rule and, as you said, the words certainly aren’t in the Constitution, and he accused the majority, joined by Justice Thomas, of vast judicial overreaching and judicial arrogance. It was quite a strong dissent. But let me go back to the majority.
The majority was equally strong, and they said Miranda itself was clear; it was clear the Constitution required it. Miranda, for example, always applied in state courts, and federal courts just can’t dictate to states how they’re going to do their business, unless the Constitution says so. And that the Miranda court itself obviously thought it was a constitutional rule that it was announcing.
GWEN IFILL: In the court’s decision today, was it ever able to speak to the whole question of whether guilty criminals go free because of technicalities caused by the reading or not the reading of Miranda rights?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: It got into that when it was discussing whether or not it was going to overrule Miranda, and in doing that it said we’re going to rely on what’s called stare decisis, let the old decision stand, it’s such a part of our national culture. Then it turned to looking at Miranda; it acknowledged that maybe Miranda had raised the prospect that guilty suspects may go free. But the old way of doing things certainly was no better, the old voluntariness test, it was unclear and fuzzy and judges were relying on different standards to admit confessions.
GWEN IFILL: The second decision today, the court threw out California’s way of conducting its primary, saying the blanket primaries violate the rights of political parties. What’s the difference between a blanket primary, which I understand is three states in addition having to California, and an open primary, where people can cross party lines.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The blanket primary that California has and Washington and Alaska, allows people to go into the ballot box and just pick and choose, go into the ballot booth and just pick and choose among candidates from different parties. In an open primary, you can kind of pick the party’s ballot as you’re going into the booth, but you can’t just skip all over and vote for a person regardless of which party.
GWEN IFILL: They’re so similar, though, the courts argument is that parties have to protect the right to stand for what they stand for, and voters vote for what they believe. How can you make a distinction, or did the court bother to make a distinction between open primaries and blanket primaries?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: It didn’t really make that distinction today. The dissent — Justice John Paul Stevens – wrote a dissent joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg saying that those primaries certainly were open to debate now, whether or not they too were legal.
But the decision focused on this kind of unique blanket primary and said that essentially it allowed voters to highjack a party’s message and that it would handicap the party’s ability to get its message across at a critical juncture when it was electing candidates. Instead people with no party affiliation could go into the booth and dictate what the party’s message would be.
GWEN IFILL: It should be said that 60% of Californians who voted cast a vote in favor of this blanket primary, not very long ago. There have only been like three elections where this has been applied. So what happens to their constitutional right to have an election the way they choose?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, it wouldn’t even come up in this situation. Justice Stevens in his dissent said we should honor the way the state wants to conduct its elections and that this is a terrible infringement on state election law. But the majority focused on the rights of political parties, the first amendment rights of political parties to associate with who ever they want and to choose the message they want to get out there.
GWEN IFILL: Jan Crawford Greenburg, thank you very much.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Thank you.