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Supreme Court Reverses Suspect's Right

With all eyes focused today on the new nominee to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor, and how she might change its future balance, the court as it is currently constituted let slip a zinger, reversing a 23-year-old precedent that forbade police from initiating interrogation of a criminal defendant once the defendant has requested counsel at an arraignment or similar proceeding.

I'd like to say that, had Sotomayor already been confirmed, this reversal wouldn't have happened. But that is not so, given that the justice she would replace, David H. Souter, was among the dissenters in today's opinion.

The ruling, Montejo v. Louisiana, reverses Michigan v. Jackson, a 6-3 decision, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, holding that the Sixth Amendment prevents police from initiating further interrogation of a defendant who has requested but not yet had an opportunity to consult with counsel. Today's opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia, who reasoned that the Jackson rule provided only marginal policy benefits while posing "substantial costs to the truth-seeking process and the criminal justice system." He was joined in the opinion by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito.

Justice Stevens, the author of Jackson, dissented from today's opinion, as did Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. The majority's opinion, he writes, "rests on a misinterpretation of Jackson's rationale and a gross undervaluation of the rule of stare decisis. The police interrogation in this case clearly violated petitioner's Sixth Amendment right to counsel."

Notably on this day in which President Obama named his nominee, it was another short-lister, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who had argued before the Supreme Court in favor of Jackson's reversal. As Lyle Denniston recounted at SCOTUSblog, Kagan had contended that the ruling was no longer needed "given the purposes of the Sixth Amendment and the existence of other strong protections against coercion."

As Denniston also reported when the case was argued in April, a group of former top Justice Department officials, ex-prosecutors at the federal and state levels, and former judges asked the court to keep the Jackson decision intact, saying it had provided a "bright-line rule" that had become "embedded in routine police practice," just as had the warnings requirement of Miranda v. Arizona.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on May 26, 2009 at 01:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)

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