Roe v. Wade and Miranda v. Arizona are among the most notable decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. Issued less than a decade apart, these two opinions are widely recognized as being foundational to our legal system.
This year, Roe finds itself in the legal crosshairs. Two cases, Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson and Dobbs v. Jackson Woman’s Health Organization, seek to significantly curtail the right to abortion or to overturn Roe outright. For those wondering what might happen to Roe, examining the fate of Miranda is a fitting place to start. That is because, 18 years ago, Miranda—much like Roe today—was subject to a significant challenge in two cases that were also concurrently before the Court, Missouri v. Seibert and United States v. Patane.
The Court’s resulting decisions in Seibert and Patane, how the press and public reacted to those decisions, and Miranda’s aftermath may foreshadow the future of Roe and the battle for reproductive rights, both this year and beyond.
Sixty or so years ago, the Supreme Court issued a groundbreaking constitutional decision. Almost immediately thereafter, legislatures drafted bills to undercut the decision’s central holding, and presidential candidates promised to nominate justices to overturn the opinion. Despite such a response, the decision not only survived, but endured. Americans routinely cite the case as one of the most recognizable Supreme Court decisions, with many approving of the result. That popularity, though, hasn’t stopped parties from seeking legal review and asking that the original decision be curtailed. And with a differently comprised Court in place, the prospect of an outright reversal has become a real possibility.
You might think I have just chronicled the saga of Roe v. Wade, and am nodding now towards Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, two cases that came before the Court this term. But I’m actually telling a different story—that of Miranda v. Arizona.
Nonetheless, in my view, Miranda is a valuable lens for understanding what might happen to Roe. That is because, even though the two decisions concern two very different areas of the law—reproductive choice and criminal process—they share several remarkable similarities. These include (i) the reaction they received, (ii) efforts to chip away at them incrementally, and (iii) more recent attempts to overturn the decisions outright. In short, if one wants to understand what Whole Woman’s Health and Dobbs might do to Roe, then examining the fate of Miranda is a good place to start.
Begin with the reaction to the decisions at the time: “Miranda was instantly controversial.” Although some scholars offered tentative approval, many more reacted with “anger.” A New York Times headline—”Miranda Decision Said to End the Effective Use of Confessions”—illustrates a prototypical response. Even judges were skeptical of the Court’s reasoning: Judge Walter Pope described Miranda at the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference as “break[ing] new ground,” and “[u]nquestionably . . . not supported by precedent.”
Two years after Miranda, then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon explicitly called out the opinion in his campaign speeches, noting that “[t]he Miranda . . . decision of the High Court ha[s] had the effect of seriously hamstringing the peace forces in our society and strengthening the criminal forces.” His appointment of Warren Burger to the Supreme Court fulfilled his campaign promise. During the first decade after Burger’s appointment, “the Court decided ten cases in which the interpretation, application, or scope of Miranda was a principal issue. In every one of those cases, the Court ruled against the defendant.” Congress likewise legislated in response to Miranda, enacting 18 U.S.C. § 3501, which sought to restore the pre-Miranda standard—voluntariness—through federal statute (more on this below).
Roe v. Wade saw a similar response. Time Magazine described the decision as “stunning.” Leading scholars criticized it as “a very bad decision” and “bad constitutional law.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, questioned the Court’s reliance “on a medically approved autonomy idea” to support its decision, rather than a “constitutionally based sex-equality perspective,” which she viewed as providing a stronger legal basis.
“Akin to Miranda, Roe engendered a near immediate legislative response as well: “Many state legislatures . . . reacted to Roe . . . with hostility.” And the decision, of course, has become a “litmus test”: it is usually a measuring stick as to whether a particular presidential candidate will nominate judges to defend or oppose the case.
The political response and scholarly skepticism to Miranda and Roe, however, stands in sharp contrast to their enduring public approval. Both opinions are frequently listed by the public as among the most notable decisions the Court has ever issued. Miranda is perhaps “the most well-known case in criminal law,” and Roe is “the starting point for any conversation about the appropriate role of courts in modern life.” Both decisions also receive majoritarian support—sometimes supermajoritarian support: between 70% and 94% of Americans support Miranda, and around 60% support Roe.
Yet, despite their salience and approval by the public, Miranda and Roe’s place in the modern constitutional canon remains precarious because of two types of legal attacks. The first type has taken issue with the opinions on an incremental basis, seeking to chip away at the rule by creating exceptions, hurdles, and other obstacles. Most Americans probably do not know much about these incremental challenges, because they do not, even when successful (as they often are), result in a direct overruling of the original decision.
Consequently, while the public might be aware of Miranda, they are unlikely to have heard of Harris v. New York, which permits statements obtained in violation of Miranda to be used for impeachment purposes; or New York v. Quarles, which creates a public-safety exception; or Pennsylvania v. Muniz, which establishes a routine-booking exception.
Nor, too, would most be familiar with Stenberg v. Carhart, which upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act; or Harris v. McRae, which upheld the Hyde Amendment and prohibited public funding for abortions; or H.L. v. Matheson, which upheld parental notification of minors seeking an abortion. These cases do real damage to Miranda and Roe in significant ways, even if they technically keep the underlying decision formally intact.
Such incremental challenges built towards another type of challenge: a direct attack to the decision’s vitality. For Miranda, that first came in Dickerson v. United States. Dickerson involved the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 3501, which provides that, in a federal prosecution, a confession is “admissible in evidence if it is voluntarily given.” There was broad agreement that “Congress intended,” through § 3501, “to overrule Miranda” by restoring the old voluntariness standard by statute. The Justice Department, however, was reluctant to challenge § 3501’s constitutionality, and refrained from doing so for several decades.
But the Supreme Court had changed by 2000, when Dickerson appeared before it: Justice William Rehnquist, who had long made clear his opposition to Miranda, was now Chief Justice, and several other Miranda skeptics, including Justice Kennedy, had joined the bench.
Yet Miranda did not end up on the chopping block after all. Dickerson came out 7-2, with Chief Justice Rehnquist authoring the majority opinion holding § 3501 unconstitutional. As he put it, “[w]e do not think there is such justification for overruling Miranda. Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture.”
There is a close relationship between Dickerson and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Analogous to Dickerson, there was a fear that Casey would overrule Roe: four Justices had, in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, earlier “indicated a willingness to directly overrule” Roe, and two other Justices supportive of Roe—William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall—had retired and been replaced by David Souter and Clarence Thomas.
Casey didn’t, of course, overturn Roe. Emphasizing “the terrible price [that] would be paid for overruling,” the controlling plurality opinion explained that “people have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion.” That justification—social reliance on a seminal decision—echoes the notion, expressed in Dickerson, that Miranda had “become embedded in . . . our national culture.”
Miranda and Roe survived their first direct challenges, in Dickerson and Casey. But three cases post-Dickerson—Missouri v. Seibert, United States v. Patane, and Berghuis v. Thompkins—again sought to reverse Miranda.
Both Seibert and Patane were heard during the 2003 term. “From the time the Court granted certiorari, the media identified these as cases to be watched.” Seibert involved the use by police of a “question-first,” Miranda-second strategy. Patane concerned whether failure to provide Miranda warnings “require[d] suppression of the [fruits of a] suspect’s unwarned but voluntary statements.” Of the two cases, Seibert was the more eye-catching, with leading editorials emphasizing that “question-first” would—if upheld—essentially create “an end run around Miranda.”
Yet the Court’s resulting opinions neither overruled Miranda nor rejected question-first. In Seibert, Justice Souter proposed a multi-factor test to examine whether “the warnings effectively advise the suspect that he had a real choice about giving an admissible statement”—factors like whether the warnings are given “close in time” and the interrogation is “similar in content” to the original confession. Although the Court ruled against the police in the specific case, it did not necessarily foreclose “question-first” tactics as a general matter. Patane held that the fruits of a Miranda violation were admissible, but also did not reverse Miranda outright.
Reaction to the Seibert and Patane decisions was generally positive. Although going in the cases were seen as efforts to gut Miranda, the final opinions were more or less celebrated as vindicating Miranda’s core holding (or at least not overruling Miranda).
Six years later, the Court took up Berghuis v. Thompkins, a case where a suspect was interrogated for three hours after receiving Miranda warnings. He stayed largely silent during this interrogation. At the end of the interrogation, police asked the suspect whether he “pray[ed] to God to forgive you for shooting that boy.” The suspect answered yes, and that answer was admitted as incriminating. According to the Court, the suspect had failed to affirmatively invoke his rights—even though Miranda includes no such affirmative requirement—and that failure rendered Miranda inapplicable. Although Berghuis all but overruled Miranda, the resulting coverage was muted—the case did not even make front-page news in most papers.
There are parallels between Seibert and Patane on the one hand and Whole Woman’s Health and Dobbs on the other. Like Seibert and Patane, both Whole Woman’s Health and Dobbs were heard in the same term. Like Seibert and Patane, there has been more attention paid to one case over the other.
Texas’s S.B. 8, the law at issue in Whole Woman’s Health, is generally viewed as more draconian than Mississippi’s H.B. 2, the law at issue in Dobbs, because of S.B. 8’s shorter abortion window (six weeks to fifteen weeks) and unorthodox enforcement mechanisms. And like Seibert, the Court’s recent decision in Whole Woman’s Health is somewhat equivocal. It does not endorse S.B. 8—it, in fact, allows enforcement challenges against some parties to proceed. But the opinion also does not necessarily endorse or overrule Roe either.
That leaves a connection between Patane and Dobbs. There is no question that upholding H.B. 2 would be a serious blow to abortion’s availability. But just like Patane, which held that admitting the fruits of an improper confession did not overturn Miranda outright, Chief Justice Roberts noted at oral argument that H.B. 2 could be upheld without necessarily overturning Roe and Casey, so long as one reads the latter decisions as providing a right to abortion but not necessarily an explicit tie to viability or any other bright line.
That compromise could take some of the air out of the media balloon. Sure, Whole Woman’s Health and Dobbs chipped away at Roe, the argument might go. But so too did Seibert and Patane chip away at Miranda. Neither overruled Miranda, and Roe too might well be formally intact after this Term is over.
If that is the end result, then where do we go from here, and what lessons might be learned from Miranda’s fate? Two come to mind. First, there is only so much oxygen the media can take up when focused on a decision. Shortly after Roe was issued, John Hart Ely wrote The Wages of Crying Wolf, a seminal article criticizing the opinion. The gist of Ely’s argument was that, though Roe might have reached a favorable policy result, the decision by litigants to cry wolf to the judicial system resulted in an opinion that “lack[ed] connection with any value [in] the Constitution.” There were, Ely predicted, costs to that sort of reasoning.
One might say the same about the media. While Seibert and Patane were pending, the press raised a great deal of alarm about Miranda’s likely overruling. When that did not technically come to pass, those warnings lost force. When the next major case challenging Miranda came along—Berghuis, which had arguably worse facts and more at stake—the coverage was more circumspect.
A similar story might play out in Whole Woman’s Health and Dobbs. Time and again the press has stated, for these two cases, that nothing short of Roe’s vitality is at stake. But it is possible that neither case will be Roe’s explicit death knell. If that happens, what credibility will the press have lost? And how much attention will the public pay when the next abortion challenge reaches the Court?
A loss of such attention can, correspondingly, give the Court license to take more substantial cuts into the core of Roe in the future. After all, Miranda was saved in Dickerson in large part because the Court recognized that “the warnings ha[d] become part of our national culture,” and Roe was saved in Casey because of the “kind of reliance [interests] that would lend a special hardship to the consequences of overruling.” Public attention, in short, held the Court’s feet to the fire.
Second, it is worth acknowledging both the reach and limits of the law. Most scholars believe Miranda has become irrelevant, even if it formally remains on the books. By carving out exception after exception, the Court has created a how-to guide for law enforcement to violate Miranda without needing to overrule the case outright.
Likewise, even if in theory Roe remains good law, many women are unable to obtain an abortion as a practical matter, because of issues related to cost and access. Mississippi has just one facility providing abortion services—Jackson Women’s Health Organization: the respondent in Dobbs. Five other states also have just one clinic. Neither Whole Woman’s Health nor Dobbs is likely to change this calculus, whatever the result. Part of the reproductive rights battle surely happens in our courthouses. But another part of the fight—perhaps a much larger part—takes place in legislatures, town halls, and classrooms across the country. How that story unfolds remains anyone’s guess.
Copyright © 2022 Xiao Wang. Professor Wang is a Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of the Supreme Court Clinic at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Many thanks to Ivan Parfenoff and Elisabeth Logan for their insightful comments.
. Yale Kamisar, A Dissent From the Miranda Dissents: Some Comments on the “New” Fifth Amendment and the Old “Voluntariness” Test, 65 Mich. L. Rev. 59, 63 (1966) (“Miranda may leave something to be desired, but it deserves a better reception than this.”).
. Richard Nixon’s Remarks in New York City: “Toward Freedom from Fear” (May 8, 1968), The American Presidency Project, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-new-york-city-toward-freedom-from-fear.
. Hon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Some Thoughts On Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade, 63 N.C. L. Rev. 375, 385–86 (1985); see also id. (noting that “[h]eavy-handed judicial intervention”—as reflected by Roe’s reasoning—”was difficult to justify and appears to have provoked, not resolved, conflict.”).
. E.g., Athena Jones, Gillibrand’s Roe v. Wade Litmus Test: NY Senator Vows to Only Nominate Judges Who Support Abortion Rights, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/07/politics/kirsten-gillibrand-roe-v-wade-judges/index.html (May 7, 2019).
. See Friedman, supra n. 4, at 34; Lydia Saad, Americans Still Oppose Overturning Roe v. Wade, Gallup, https://news.gallup.com/poll/350804/americans-opposed-overturning-roe-wade.aspx (June 9, 2021).
. See, e.g., An End Run Around Miranda, N.Y. Times, Dec. 9, 2003; cf. Note, Lee S. Brett, “No Earlier Confession to Repeat”: Seibert, Dixon, and Question-First Interrogations, 78 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 451, 470 (2021) (“Dickerson guaranteed Miranda’a continued vitality and constitutionality. Just four years later, though, Miranda came once more under attack.”) (footnotes omitted).
. See Mary Sanchez, Supreme Court Diverges Over Miranda Warning, Kan. City Star, June 7, 2010 (“[Berghuis] . . . effectively nipped away at the Miranda ruling. . . . [But] [p]erhaps because it is occurring incrementally, few outside the legal community have taken note of the trend.”), available at https://web.archive.org/web/20100611053630/http://www.kansascity.com/2010/06/07/1999982/supreme-court-diverges-over-miranda.html.
. E.g., Mark Joseph Stern, During Arguments Over the Fate of Roe, Kavanaugh and Barrett Finally Showed Their Cards, Slate, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2021/12/dobbs-supreme-court-abortion-kavanaugh-barrett.html (Dec. 1, 2021); Mark Gongloff, Roe v. Wade Is Probably Doomed, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-12-01/dobbs-v-jackson-supreme-court-will-likely-overturn-roe-v-wade (Dec. 1, 2021).
. Cf. Friedman, supra n. 4, at 33 (“Although public opinion is not often given as a basis for the Court’s decisions, it has played a role with regard to stare decisis. . . . [P]art of the concern about overruling in constitutional cases is the way the public will perceive the decision.”).
. Holly Yan, These 6 States Have Only 1 Abortion Clinic Left. Missouri Could Become the First With Zero, CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/29/health/six-states-with-1-abortion-clinic-map-trnd/index.html (June 21, 2019).