Thursday, February 23, 2012

Two Landmark Cases: Plessy & Miranda

There have been several controversial and antiquated Supreme Court decisions throughout the history of the United States proving that the U.S. Constitution is an interpretive document that can have polarizing views. Many of the Supreme Court’s decisions, however, have seemed to embody the true spirit of the Constitution and still hold true relevance in society today, which protect those against possible injustices from authority despite being controversial at their inception. Two cases that speak volumes for such points are Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896) and Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).

Plessy v. Ferguson

Homer Plessy was known at the time as an “octoroon,” which is an unflattering term for a person who is partially Black. During a highly volatile time in the racial history of America—when Jim Crow laws were being passed and Whites sought to establish control over state governments and race relations—a group of New Orleans Creoles and Blacks organized themselves as the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Law. Plessy agreed to initiate the challenge on behalf of the group and he purchased a ticket for a journey entirely within the state of Louisiana.

Although he looked as though he was primarily White, Plessy was classified under the Louisiana code as being “colored” because he was one-eighth Black. Plessy made sure that he let the railroad and the conductor know in advance that he was Black, and he was later arrested when he refused to move to the “colored only” section of the couch. Plessy argued that the statute was unconstitutional under the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, but the Louisiana courts rejected his arguments; so he sought review from the Supreme Court.

The Fuller Court upheld the decision of the lower court by a 7 to 1 vote. Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote for the majority opinion. Brown reasoned that the law did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because it provided separate-but-equal (SBE) facilities. Likewise, Brown wrote that the Thirteenth Amendment “applied only to actions whose purpose was to reintroduce slavery itself.” Brown added that separate facilities “do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other.”

Justice Marshal Harlan was the lone dissenter, which earned him the nickname “The Great Dissenter.” In his dissent, Harlan wrote the famous words “our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Harlan also warned his colleagues that their decision was as insidious as the earlier Dred Scott decision.

Miranda v. Arizona

Ernesto A. Miranda was a twenty-three-year-old man who was arrested at his home on suspicion of robbery. After being identified by the victim of a rape-kidnapping at a police station in Phoenix, Arizona, Miranda was taken into the interrogation room and questioned about the crimes. Miranda maintained his innocence at first, but after two hours of interrogation he confessed—both in a written and verbal confession—to robbery and rape. Miranda was later convicted of kidnapping and rape, as his written was used as evidence against him.

The case was contested and appealed to the Supreme Court over whether or not Miranda had been told that anything that he said could be used against him or whether or not he had been informed of his right to an attorney during the interrogation. The first was unclear, but police made a fatal (to the prosecution’s case) declaration that Miranda was at no time advised of his right to have an attorney present during the interrogation. Miranda’s lawyers argued that their client’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and the Sixth Amendment right to an attorney were violated by the coercive interrogation and the Warren Court agreed—but by a close margin of 5 to 4.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that “due to the coercive nature of the custodial interrogation by police, no confession could be admissible under the Fifth or Sixth Amendments unless a suspect had been made aware of his or her rights,” upon becoming a suspect, and then the suspect had then waived them voluntarily. In decent, Justice Byron White wrote that the court’s decision had no “factual or textual bases” in the Constitution, and he added that there were no prior legal precedents to base the court’s decision on either. And has his grandfather did in the Plessy case, Justice John Marshall Harlan II was a staunch dissenter, writing that “nothing in the letter or the spirit of the Constitution or in the precedents squares with the heavy-handed and one-sided action that is so precipitously taken by the Court in the name of fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities.”

Miranda’s conviction was overturned, but he was later retried and convicted on the same charges (both) without evidence obtained in from his confession. The prosecution used the testimony of Miranda’s common-law wife, who claimed that during a prison visit Miranda confessed to her that he had rapped the victim. Miranda was later paroled in 1972 and stabbed to death in a bar fight in 1976.

Influencing Factors & Political Climate

The political climate during Plessy v. Ferguson was one very similar to today’s climate in America. There was a widespread economic depression set off by The Panic of 1893, and realigning elections were taking place in which the GOP (Republicans) became prominent and monetary policies of each candidate became the dominant theme in their electoral campaigns. America was not far removed from its Civil War and the Spanish-American War spurred from events in Cuba starting in 1895.

The Civil War was a very pivotal time in America history, particularly in the shaping of race relations. The fact that the Civil War was not far removed from the Plessy decision, and that social and political views still somewhat favored the thought that Blacks were inferior to Whites, there is no doubt that political ideologies played a part in the decision. Seven to one in favor of SBE speaks volumes about the time period and many White peoples’ view of Blacks in America.

In regard to the Constitution and the philosophical underpinnings of the decision; Brown has a legitimate argument when it comes to the Thirteenth Amendment. There is no basis to contest this decision based on this Amendment, because it does not violate it or the spirit of the Amendment. Justice Harlan argues that the Thirteenth Amendment infers to all “badges of servitude,” suggesting that SBE is within that. This is, however, a hard case to make from this standpoint. Servitude (or a condition in which one lacks liberty) does not include SBE, because by the letter of the law under the separate-but-equal doctrine Blacks were entitled to receive the same public services and accommodations as were Whites. This was clearly not how it worked in practice; however, as facilities for Blacks were more often than not inferior to facilities for Whites.

It is also hard to make a legal argument against SBE under the Fourteenth Amendment as well. Justice Harlan tried to by attacking the decision based on the spirit of the Constitution and that SBE was in violation of this by tolerating the division of classes among citizens. Still, however, it is hard to make this legal argument within the text. For the time being, it had seemed as though those who were hell-bent on segregation had found a loop-hole in the Constitution that allowed them to sidestep this unethical and immoral practice by using heavily ingrained legal precedents.

A moral and ethical interpretation of this situation did not come for some years later. In Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the court began to repeal such restrictive laws when they concluded that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place because separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” So, it can be said that, in this particular case, the law was restricted to and shaped primarily by the philosophical underpinnings of political ideologies as well as the changing philosophy of society and the social uprising of the civil rights movement—more so than by the actual text in the Constitution.

The political climate during Miranda v. Arizona was clearly more modern in terms of thinking. However, the country was going through tremendous changes in the 1960s (politically, socially, and economically). Activism was in full swill and at the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The 1960s saw a big rise in drug activity in America and a growing anti-establishment, rebellious subculture led by rock n roll and the hippie movement.

The Miranda decision was the most famous, and most bitterly criticized, confession case in the nation’s history. To those who opposed the decision, it was as though it symbolized the legal system’s determination to treat even the most despicable criminal suspects with dignity and respect, particularly those who attributed rising crime rates to lenient judges and softening laws that protected criminals more than law abiding citizens. However, the reality of this decision would come to serve all citizens of the justice system, and speaks to the underlying criminal justice philosophy of how the justice system is meant to operate.

Given the widely held view that police interrogations were largely invisible to the public; the philosophical underpinnings of the Miranda decision was that it helped even the average citizen from being taken advantage of by an already powerful police nation. The 1966 ruling was further enhanced and defined in later cases as well as was the philosophy behind it. In Michigan v. Tucker (1974), the court viewed the Miranda warnings as “not themselves rights protected by the Constitution,” but only “prophylactic standards” designed to “safeguard” the privilege against self-incrimination. Later still, in New York v. Quarles (1984), the court recognized the Miranda warnings as a “public safety” exception.

The Miranda decision was brought about to reinforce the Fifth and Sixth Amendments and ensure that the citizens were not being taken advantage of by police and the system in general for not understanding their options in such a pivotal situation. Dissenters to the ruling ultimately believed that the ruling would have a drastic effect and that once suspects were warned of their inalienable rights that they would almost always demand an attorney and deny police the ability to seek confessions. This flawed, and even dubious, philosophy suggests that most people do not know their rights and, therefore, the government will be better served by keeping a majority of its citizens ignorant. Moreover, it suggests that police are incapable of developing techniques to overcome such an obstacle as have educated suspects.

Both the Fuller Court and the Warren Court have viewed the Constitution very similarly, in retrospect. Both courts seem to have been bound by the social and political ideologies of their times, respectively. Certainly, the fact that the Warren Court came long after the Fuller Court, and the fact that time allows for an adjustment of thinking (corrective thinking) based on trial and error and things unseen at the time, plays a big part in each decision. Perhaps the biggest difference in the decisions was that the Fuller Court appeared to be viewing the Constitution with a more bias or prejudicial view, whereas the Warren Court appeared to be struggling more with the actual intention of the law rather than with trying to enforce their preferential beliefs onto the words in the Constitution.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Founding Fathers & the Centralization of Power

Prior to the creation of the Constitution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation (circa 1781). Political leaders of the time, however, saw many flaws in these Articles that led to political, economic, and social instability. As James Madison stated, the “preservation of the union” was being “threatened” by the inadequacies of the Articles. The States had the power to tax imports and exports, making the national government’s role of negotiating treaties with foreign governments ineffective. With a host of other problems—such as the national government being subservient to the States, no independent executive, no national judiciary, laws governing commerce differing from state to state, and so on—proponents of change believed that it was the weakness of the national government that was seen as the cause of these inadequacies.

With these pressing issues at hand and critical change needed, a convention was held (at the request of Alexander Hamilton) from 25 May 1787 to 17 September 1787, to examine the problems of the nation and ideas for revising the Articles. What came of this, however, to the objections of some, was the replacement of the Articles of Confederation and not a revision. The replacement is known as the United States Constitution. During this famous convention the framers of the Constitution had several important issues to consider—none bigger than the concept of the centralization of power. The dilemma was that the framers wanted the national government to be a limited government, yet they wanted a stronger, more centralized, and supreme national government than what they had at the time. These somewhat polarizing philosophies caused quite a debate.

With the debates finally over and the new Constitution adopted, the framers had managed to strengthen the national government while still protecting the sovereignty of the States. Articles I, II, and III of the U.S. Constitution set forth the powers of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, with the Tenth Amendment stating that the “powers not delegated to the three branches under Articles I through III are reserved for the States.” The Constitution was guided by three main concepts that prevented both the centralization of power and the death of State sovereignty: federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances. These three concepts allowed for the division of governmental power between the federal and state governments, the separation of governmental authority, and the prevention of one branch from possessing absolute authority over any particular function.

There are three important clauses in the Constitution that that framers instituted that enhance the power of the federal government, and represent exceptions to the concept of limited government: the commerce clause, the necessary and proper clause, and the supremacy clause. Whether the framers foresaw or not; these clauses have given the federal government great wide-reaching powers; thus, making the federal government a very strong central government.

Article I, section 8, clause 18 (necessary and proper clause) empowers Congress to take whatever actions necessary to fully enforce their granted power. This clause played a major part in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), wherein the Supreme Court upheld the power of the federal government to create a national bank. Article I, section 8, clause 3 (commerce clause) gives Congress the power to regulate foreign and interstate commerce. In 1937 it was used by the Supreme Court to uphold the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which states that business may have an economic impact on the nation, regardless of whether or not it is intrastate in nature; therefore, it is federal jurisdiction. Finally, the supremacy clause in Article VI of the Constitution states that the federal government is the “supreme law of the land,” and judges in every State shall be “bound by” federal law.