Opposing Causes The Impact of the Supreme Court Under Warren and Rehnquist on Criminal Procedure

The Civil Rights movement in the United States has had a profound impact not only on social and political rights of Americans but on the American criminal justice system. Influenced by the social upheavals of the 1960s, civil rights consciousness seeped into the Supreme Court headed by the Chief Justice Earl Warren (1953-1969) (hereafter Warren Court) (Belknap  Warren, 2005). The Bill of Rights found its way into criminal procedure - the bulk of legal processes governing law enforcement agencies, correctional systems, and criminal trials (Cardozo, 1957). Fearing that law-and-order safeguards in the Constitution were being slowly eroded, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist (1986-2005) (hereafter Rehnquist Court) limited and modified portions of the civil rights guarantees to strengthen law enforcement (Hensley, Hale,  Snook, 2000). The result is that American criminal procedure today has become a struggle to even out the demand for protection of civil liberties and the need for more efficient crime prevention and regulation.

Civil Liberties and Public Order Today A Delicate Balancing Act
Being the final arbiter, the Warren Court placed heavy emphasis on the constitutional guarantees on the rights of the accused. Because of such activist reforms, efforts toward crime prevention today require a human rights angle (Israel, Kamisar,  LaFave, 2003).  This progressive stance was met with severe criticism from conservative America. Criminal cases, which are decidedly pro-prosecution, were perceived to be more pro-defendant during Warren, sparking fears that the rulings were tantamount to coddling of criminals and creating permissiveness toward crime (Time, 1974). When Warren retired from the High Court, efforts were made to temper the effects of his liberalism by installing conservative justices, the most prominent of which is William Rehnquist, who served as Chief Justice from 1986 to 2005. Until today, the Supreme Court struggles to balance civil liberties and the maintenance of public order in criminal procedure, a historical product of the landmark decisions made by the liberal Warren Court and the conservative Rehnquist Court. This essay compares and contrasts several key decisions of the Supreme Court under the leadership of Chief Justice Warren and Chief Justice Rehnquist that made a significant impact on criminal procedure.

The Warren Court Constitutionalizing Criminal Procedure
The Warren Court is remembered as one of the most progressive group of Supreme Court justices in American history. Warren constitutionalized criminal procedure by adding the concept of social justice and civil rights to criminal law, noting that the important thing in criminal cases is not whether the prosecution or the defense won, but where justice has been done (Time, 1974). Justice, in Warrens definition and based upon the most important Supreme Court rulings in his term, attaches equality and fairness as enshrined in the Bill of Rights to criminal processes (Whitman, 1974).

Warren introduced the concept of economic equality in criminal procedure. In Griffin v. Illinois (1956), the Warren Court accused the criminal justice system of being anti-poor when it struck down the decision of a trial judge who rejected a request by two indigents, Judson Griffin and James Crenshaw, to be provided a free copy of the court transcripts as basis for their appeal (Belknap  Warren, 2005). The trial judge had ruled that free copies could only be obtained in appealing capital cases. This case is considered as the first powerful indictment of the criminal justice systems bias in terms of class and wealth (Belknap  Warren, 2005).

The famous Miranda warning is another legacy left by the Warren Court. Miranda vs. Arizona (1966) is a protection against possible violations of the rights of the accused provided in the Fifth Amendment, or the right against self-incrimination. In a landmark decision, voting 5-4, the Warren Court ruled that any statement made by a defendant during interrogation is admissible only if it can be shown that said defendant had been informed of  1) his right to counsel 2) right against self-incrimination and 3) that defendant not only understood these rights but waived them voluntarily (Miranda vs. Arizona, 1966). The product of this decision, the Miranda warning, is now standard police procedure that assures accused persons are informed of their rights.

The Warren Court also instituted liberality in the reading of the Fourth Amendment in relation to criminal procedure. In Mapp vs. Ohio (1961), the Warren Court ruled that evidence obtained by search and seizure without a search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment and is therefore inadmissible in court (Belknap  Warren, 2005). The Warren Court clarified a grey area in this prohibition when in Terry vs. Ohio (1968), it ruled that search and seizure conducted by a law enforcer can be allowed when reasonable suspicion exists that a person is committing, has committed, or about to commit a crime (Belknap  Warren, 2005). The product of this decision is called the Terry stop that is practiced by law enforcement today.

Warren also revolutionized the interpretation of the Sixth Amendment or the due process guarantee in criminal procedure with Gideon vs. Wainwright (1963) and Escobedo vs. Illinois (1964). In Gideon, the Court ruled unanimously that the Constitution requires state courts to provide counsel to defendants in criminal cases if they are not financially capable of getting one ((Belknap  Warren, 2005). Escobedo held that suspects in criminal cases are guaranteed the constitutional right to a lawyer when interrogated by the police (Belknap  Warren, 2005).

Moderating Warrens Constitutionalizaton The Rehnquist Court
As stated earlier, the reforms instituted by the Warren Court generated concerns that the Supreme Court has rendered law enforcement and the criminal justice system toothless in favor of the accused (Hensley, Hale,  Snook, 2006). The appointment of conservative Chief Justices after Warren - first Warren Burger, then William Rehnquist - was considered to be Washingtons attempt to reverse or counter-revolutionize the constitutionalization of criminal procedure made by Warren (Hensley, Hale,  Snook, 2006). Based on its key decisions, the Rehnquist Court did not appear to completely reverse the Warren legacy, but only modified and limited its scope to strengthen law enforcement.

In Colorado vs. Connelly (1986), the Rehnquist limited the scope of the Miranda decision when it ruled that the testimony of a man evaluated as suffering from chronic schizophrenia is still admissible in court. The Court ruled that this is not a form of involuntary confession that violates the due process clause provided in the Fourteenth Amendment because Miranda suppresses only testimonial evidence obtained through coercive police activity (Hensley, Hale,  Snook, 2006).

The Where Warren tended to interpret the Fourth Amendment in favor of individual privacy, the Rehnquist court was inclined to rule in favor of law enforcement especially in the case of warrantless searches on or aboard vehicles. In Michigan vs. Sitz (1990), the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints was raised where police officers can stop vehicles to examine the influence of drugs or alcohol.  Ruling in favor of law enforcement, the Rehnquist Court opined that the governmental interest in curbing drug influence takes precedence over minor invasions of individual privacy (Hensley, Hale,  Snook, 2006, p. 165). In Florida v. Bostick (1991), the Rehnquist Court further legitimized warrantless searches (Hensley, Hale,  Snook, 2006). Two police officers boarded a bus and for no particular reason, asked defendant Bostick for his ticket and identification. The officers asked for Bosticks permission to search his luggage, and when granted, illegal drugs were found. The Rehnquist Court ruled that the rights of the accused under the Fourth Amendment were not violated because in the Courts opinion, Bostick had not been seized and was perfectly within his rights to refuse to the search (Hensley, Hale,  Snook, 2006).

The present-day struggle in the American criminal justice system between protecting civil liberties and enhancing law enforcement are the products of two Supreme Courts that generally vied for opposing causes. The liberal Warren Court tended to favor individual rights while the conservative Rehnquist Court ruled for law enforcement in dealing with criminal cases. The Warren Court provided constitutional safeguards to prevent any abuse of power from law enforcement while the Rehnquist Court balanced governmental interests over individual liberties. While both Courts seem in various forms antithetical to each other, the key decisions they have made continue to contribute to the development of law enforcement and criminal procedure in contemporary American society.


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