An article yesterday on the Supreme Court's decision to review its 1966 Miranda ruling incorrectly said Charles Dickerson had been convicted of bank robbery. He has been accused of bank robbery in Virginia but has not yet been tried on the charge. (Published 12/08/1999)

The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it will decide whether its 1966 Miranda decision, the legendary ruling that requires police to tell suspects in custody their rights, is still good law.

At stake is one of the best-known principles of the American legal system: that police must tell suspects of their right to remain silent, that anything they say can be used against them, and that they have a right to have a lawyer present during questioning. The Miranda protections are a hallmark of the liberal era of Chief Justice Earl Warren and, through their repetition in movies and television, a staple of American popular culture.

A challenge to the landmark decision has arisen, however, because this year a Richmond-based federal appeals court ruled that Congress effectively reversed Miranda v. Arizona with a law passed in 1968. Though never enforced, the law enabled confessions to be used at trial even when criminals had not been warned of their right to remain silent.

The February decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which covers Virginia, Maryland and three neighboring states, shocked the legal community at the time, but it has been embraced by a small but forceful band of conservative lawyers who believe Miranda has handicapped law enforcement efforts.

The case, Dickerson v. United States, will present one of the most significant tests to date of how far the Rehnquist Court will go in bolstering law enforcement over defendants' rights. It will also put the spotlight on the aggressive jurisprudence of the 4th Circuit, a panel that has cut a large swath in recent years with its conservative decisions and bold rhetoric. Neither side in the Dickerson case--concerning a bank robber who contended he had not been properly read his rights--had questioned the validity of Miranda; the 4th Circuit took it upon itself to revive the 1968 law passed to abolish it.

A Supreme Court ruling on the 33-year-old precedent, which is strongly endorsed by the Justice Department, could be decided by a single vote. The justices most likely to vote against Miranda, based on their past writings, are Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Those more inclined to uphold it are Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer. And while swing-vote justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy tend to lean to the right on criminal law matters, Miranda is no routine decision.

As O'Connor commented in a 1984 case testing the particulars of Miranda: "Were the court writing from a clean slate," she might be inclined to narrow how it could be used. "But Miranda is now the law . . . and the court has not provided sufficient justification for blurring its now clear strictures."

Kennedy has also written and signed opinions endorsing Miranda, including a 1990 decision reinforcing protections for suspects who invoke their right to counsel in custody and a 1993 one ensuring that state prisoners who claim their confessions were coerced can appeal to a federal court.

The Dickerson case, to be heard by the court next spring, presents the fundamental question of whether Miranda v. Arizona was mandated by the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which provides that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." If it was required by the Constitution, it could only be overturned by a constitutional amendment. If it was not, it could be reversed by a law such as the one passed by Congress in 1968.

Whether the Warren Court felt that Miranda necessarily derived from the Fifth Amendment is arguably not explicit from its written decision. In defending the validity of the 1966 ruling, Attorney General Janet Reno told the justices that not only is Miranda "embedded in the law," but it has a "constitutional foundation" that cannot be reversed through legislation. Reno also noted that during the past three decades, the high court has repeatedly applied the Miranda requirement to cases arising out of state courts and in certain prisoner appeals--practices reserved for constitutional protections.

One unusual feature of this case is that both the defendant, convicted bank robber Charles Dickerson, and the Justice Department, which prosecuted him, object to the 4th Circuit's rejection of Miranda. Consequently, in its order yesterday the Supreme Court asked University of Utah law professor Paul G. Cassell, a prolific Miranda critic who had submitted a brief on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation urging the court to take the case, to present arguments that the 1968 federal law trumps the ruling. Cassell's position is that while the ruling flowed from the Fifth Amendment, it wasn't required by it. Rather, he said, the court devised it as a remedy "to assist" in protecting constitutional rights, in effect a policy choice that Congress can reverse.

Cassell, a former law clerk to Scalia (when the jurist was on the D.C. Circuit appeals court) and then to Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, has argued that adherence to the 1966 decision has hurt law enforcement and led to the freeing of many dangerous felons.

But Reno countered that Miranda has been absorbed into law enforcement practices and is "beneficial" because it offers police clear rules and ensures suspects are treated fairly.

The justices separately announced yesterday that they would take up a high-profile case concerning federal court judges' oversight of prison conditions.

In 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act, responding to states' concern that federal courts, which have become watchdogs for potentially abusive penal conditions, were impinging on states' control of their own prisons. The law imposed a deadline on judges considering requests by state officials seeking to end court supervision, stating that if a judge refused to act on a request within 90 days, court supervision of the prison automatically would end.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the law violates the constitutional separation of powers by effectively usurping the courts' authority and intruding on judicial procedures.