WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court took an intensive new look yesterday at its Miranda decision and dropped hints that the famous ruling could survive, but perhaps only with deep division among the justices.
After a one-hour hearing, it appeared that the future of Miranda warnings would depend on the willingness of key justices to put the 1966 ruling on a firmer legal basis. Doing so would mean that local police, as well as federal agents, would still be obliged to inform suspects of their rights to remain silent and to consult a lawyer.
The justices' questions and comments ranged widely over the powers of the court and Congress to control police tactics. The hearing showed the court to be keenly aware that it had to make a difficult choice about what to do with one of its best-known criminal law rulings, Miranda vs. Arizona.
Congress, in a law it passed two years after Miranda, sought to overrule the decision by saying that confessions could be used against suspects even if they had not been informed about their rights. That 1968 law had its first test before the court yesterday.
Watching the hearing from a spectator seat was Charles Thomas Dickerson of Prince George's County, the central figure in the new case. Questioned by officers about his role in a bank robbery in Alexandria, Va., Dickerson gave damaging statements, apparently without first being given the Miranda warnings. He does not want those statements used against him when he goes to trial.
With the support of the Justice Department, Dickerson is challenging the constitutionality of Congress' attempt to eliminate the required warnings, at least in federal criminal cases.
By the end of the hearing, it appeared that the outcome would probably be controlled by two swing justices -- Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy. Those two will likely be swayed mainly by their view of the court's power to write rules that affect local police interrogations.
Those two justices did not clearly tip their reactions to the case. But both focused their questions on whether Miranda warnings were required as a constitutional mandate or were simply a procedural device that Congress was free to displace.
At one point, O'Connor asked a Justice Department lawyer, Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman: "What is it [that Miranda requires], and how do we have the power to require it?"
Waxman replied that such power derives from the justices' authority "to interpret and apply the Constitution." The decision, he went on, requires warnings to protect a suspect's constitutional right to silence when facing police interrogation.
O'Connor and Kennedy seemed likely to vote to continue requiring Miranda warnings should they decide that the court's authority over law enforcement reaches the state and local level. Such a conclusion would probably be based on a belief that the Miranda ruling imposed a constitutional duty.
In that event, local police would have no choice but to obey the ruling -- and to continue telling suspects of their rights to silence and to a lawyer.
Justice Department officials have indicated that federal agents would continue to give suspects Miranda warnings before questioning them. But most police interrogation is done at the local level. So as a practical matter, the fate of the Miranda warnings depends largely on the outcome of Dickerson's case.
Four justices -- Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens -- hinted by their questions that they believed the Miranda decision should be kept intact, applying to officers at all levels, as a constitutional requirement. Ginsburg called the ruling a "bedrock decision," and Breyer said it was "a hallmark of American justice for 30 years."
That bloc of four justices appears to need the vote of only O'Connor or Kennedy to prevail and reaffirm the required Miranda warnings.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who over the years has become a sharp critic of Miranda and a strong defender of Congress' power to change the rules of police interrogations, made his support for the 1968 anti-Miranda law even clearer yesterday.
"The Constitution gives this court the power to impose the rule" -- that is, Miranda warnings -- "but that does not mean Congress can't change the rule," Scalia said.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked some questions that suggested he was leaning toward maintaining the Miranda warnings and other questions that indicated some support for Congress' power to modify those requirements. Justice Clarence Thomas asked no questions.
Dickerson's lawyer, James W. Hundley of Fairfax, Va., who was grilled by Scalia, maintained that the Miranda decision was based on the Constitution and that Congress had no authority to undo it.
Because the Justice Department is not defending the constitutionality of the 1968 anti-Miranda law, the court appointed a University of Utah law professor, Paul G. Cassell, to argue in favor of the statute. Cassell told the justices that the Miranda decision was only a "provisional, interim" ruling laying down a warnings requirement until Congress and the state legislatures chose to replace it.
He contended that the 1968 law went at least as far as Miranda to protect suspects from being coerced by police into confessing to crimes. Cassell argued that Congress made clear that involuntary confessions could not be used against suspects and that the 1968 law established safeguards against coercion of suspects by police.