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.

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