The Justice Department yesterday urged the Supreme Court to reaffirm its 1966 Miranda decision, arguing that Congress lacked authority to pass a 1968 law intended to reverse Miranda but never enforced.

The legendary ruling, popularized in movies and on television and carved deep into the nation's laws and culture, requires police to tell suspects of their right to remain silent, warns that anything they say can be used against them and notifies them of their right to have a lawyer present during questioning.

"In the 33 years since [Miranda] was handed down, it has become embedded in the law," said the filing signed by Attorney General Janet Reno, asserting that the decision has become "a constitutional foundation" that cannot be reversed through legislation. Reno's involvement in the brief reflects the political controversy surrounding the filing.

Miranda's validity was thrown into doubt earlier this year when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which covers Maryland, Virginia, and three neighboring states, ruled that the 1968 federal law--which allowed voluntary confessions to be used at trial when criminals had not been warned of their right to remain silent--trumps the Miranda decision.

The Justice Department's 41-page brief, filed last night after the department twice had sought month-long postponements of its deadline, acknowledged that reliable evidence can sometimes be kept out of trial because an officer failed to give a suspect the so-called Miranda warning. But the department concluded that the decision was "workable" and "in many respects beneficial to law enforcement" because it offers a clear rule.

The Justice Department had earlier argued in the case involving Maryland bank robber Charles Dickerson that Congress acted unconstitutionally when it passed the 1968 law. But after the case moved to the Supreme Court, some prosecutors and other law enforcement advocates began pressuring the department to reconsider its stance. Reno herself commented recently about the intense passion that the debate over Miranda's validity inspired.

It still rests with the Supreme Court to decide in upcoming weeks whether to review the 4th Circuit's ruling in Dickerson v. United States. If the court accepts the Justice Department's advice to take the case and reverse the 4th circuit, it would open up one of the most important criminal law debates in decades.