Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Miranda at the Supreme Court

Two months after the nations highest court agreed to hear arguments in the case of Miranda v. Arizona, John Flynn and John Frank submitted their brief, or outline of the case and legal arguments in support of their position. They continued their argument that Ernest Mirandas Sixth Amendment right to counsel had been violated by the Phoenix Police Department: The day is here to recognize the full meaning of the Sixth Amendment, they wrote. We invoke the basic principles (that) he requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. When Miranda stepped into Interrogation Room 2, he had only the guiding hand of Officers Cooley and Young.

Two weeks after Flynn and Frank presented their arguments, the state of Arizona responded. The cases of Ernest Miranda and Danny Escobedo are not equal and there is no Constitutional reason for this Court to equate them, wrote Gary Nelson, assistant attorney general for Arizona. Nelson went on to argue that confession should not be suppressed unless police have undertaken a course of conduct calculated to deny the accused his right to counsel. Certainly nothing less will be tolerated, but the United States Constitution requires no more.

Amicus or Friend of the Court briefs were filed by several civil rights and law enforcement organizations on both sides of the issue. The ACLU filed an amicus brief, as did the National District Attorneys Association and the National Association of State Attorneys General.

Combined, the arguments on both sides of the Miranda case totaled more than 700 pages, quite a bit different from Frank and Flynns original nine-page request for a hearing.

It was the last day of February 1966 when the nine black-robed justices heard the oral arguments in the case of Miranda v Arizona. The argument which proceeded Mirandas was that of Dr. Samuel Sheppard, the man whose murder of his wife was the basis for the television show and film The Fugitive. Sheppards attorney was F. Lee Bailey, the Boston lawyer who would later defend Patty Hearst (unsuccessfully) and O.J. Simpson (successfully). As a result of the Sheppard cases publicity, the courtroom was packed.

Arguing the position of the United States government, dressed in the traditional gray striped pants and morning coat, was Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall, the former NAACP attorney who successfully argued the Brown v. Board of Education case and who would later be the nations first black justice. Marshalls job was to state the position of the U.S. Attorney General and the government of the United States on questions involving Constitutional matters.

Finally, it was time for docket item number 759, Miranda v. Arizona. The petitioner in this case, Miranda, would be heard first. Ernest Miranda, of course, was not present when his fate was being decided; he was still awaiting the decision in the Arizona State Prison. Flynn argued the case for him.

John Flynn, in a deep resonant baritone, took the first few minutes to outline the background of the case against Ernest Miranda, recounting the assault, the arrest, trial and conviction, as well as claiming the Arizona Supreme Court had imprisoned the Escobedo decision by so severely limiting its application.

He pointed out that Ernest Miranda had not been advised of his right to remain silent when he had been arrested and questioned, adding the Fifth Amendment argument to his case. Justice Potter Stewart interrupted Flynn shortly after his introduction to begin the intense questioning that marks a Supreme Court session. Stewart wanted to know at what point Flynn thought a suspect had the right to counsel.

After receiving several unsatisfactory answers from Flynn, he asked if the entire judicial process should come to bear during interrogation. To take it to the extreme, he said, should the accused have the right to a jury in the examination room?

Flynn responded that no, a jury wasnt necessary, but that at the time of questioning if he knowsif he is rich enough and educated enough to assert his Fifth Amendment right, and if he recognizes that he has a Fifth Amendment right, to request counsel. He went on to say a man like Miranda, who wasnt rich, who was emotionally disturbed, who had a limited education, shouldnt be expected to know his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Flynn spoke before the court for a half-hour, most of the time departing from his prepared remarks to answer the questions fired at him from the justices sitting high above him before a red velvet curtain. In the end, he called upon the court to move as fast as possible to set rules for questioning, because state legislatures would move slowly to protect the rights of people like Ernest Miranda.

Gary Nelson spoke for the people of Arizona, arguing that this was not a Fifth Amendment issue, but merely a vehicle for the court to expand its Sixth Amendment Escobedo decision. He urged the justices to clarify their position, but not to push the limits of Escobedo too far. Presciently, he told the court that forcing police to advise suspects of their rights would seriously hamper public safety. I think if the extreme position is adopted that says he has to either have counsel at this stage or intelligently waive counsel, that a serious problem in the enforcement of our criminal law will occur.

Because of the four other cases tied to Miranda and the large number of amicus briefs filed in the case, a second day of oral arguments followed on March 1. That day, the justices honed in on the Fifth Amendment aspects of the case, which pleased John Flynn to no end. The last man to present a position in the case before the court was Thurgood Marshall, whose personal opinions were diametrically opposed to the position of his employer, the U.S. government.

Once the arguments were done, there was nothing left to do but wait as the justices debated the issue among themselves and issued a written opinion, probably in four or five months. The traditional process called for the justices to listen to oral arguments on Monday through Thursday, then to take preliminary votes and assign opinion authorships during a private meeting again attended only by the justices on Friday. Based on the political makeup of the Supreme Court in the spring of 1966, it was widely speculated that a majority would come down in some form on the side of Ernest Miranda.


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