We admit it: we like to skip to the Scalia dissent.
Not because we necessarily agree with his philosophy of jurisprudence. But because it’s a good bet to be an entertaining read. Whether he’s dissenting from an expansive activist or a fellow limited-role jurist, he’s good for a bit of snark while mercilessly pointing out flaws and internal inconsistencies in the other fellow’s opinion.
So when we saw that Alito, and not Scalia, wrote the dissent in this morning’s Corley v. United States decision on the exclusion of statements, we sighed a little and took in the majority opinion first.
Well, we learned our lesson. Alito can give good dissent.
At issue is 18 U.S.C. § 3501. The statute was passed by Congress back in the 60s, in an attempt to undo some of the aggressive jurisprudence of the Warren Court. Particularly, Congress was trying to nullify the Court’s perceived expansion of the Exclusionary Rule with respect to statements. Miranda made statements inadmissible if suspects weren’t advised of their rights before custodial interrogation, and McNabb and Mallory excluded confessions during extended detention prior to arraignment. §3501(a) tried to nullify Miranda by saying that, notwithstanding any warnings, if the statement was voluntary, then it was admissible. §3501(c) similarly said that custodial confessions weren’t automatically inadmissible because of delay, if they were voluntary. Congress flatly said that voluntary statements were going to be admissible.
Now, all this shows is that Congress didn’t understand Miranda or the McNabb-Mallory rule. At heart behind both rules is the concept of voluntariness. If someone voluntarily inculpated themselves, then the Court has never had a problem with admitting that statement into evidence. The only thing that the Court has ever had a problem with — no matter who was on the bench — is involuntary statements being used against people.
Seriously, the single policy that explains all of the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the exclusion of statement evidence is this: “We won’t allow the government to convict somebody by overriding that person’s free will.”
So if the defendant was forced to incriminate himself out of his own mouth, then we won’t let that in. We won’t let the government beat confessions out of suspects, and this is all of a piece.
By the same token, we have no problem with taking blood or DNA samples without the suspect’s permission, because we’re not forcing him to convict himself. We’re just taking already-existing physical evidence, not forcing the suspect to create evidence to be used against him.
Hence the rule of Miranda and its progeny: If a reasonable person wouldn’t feel free to leave, and he’s being quizzed by the government, then incriminating response is by definition involuntary. The only way the government can cure that is to make sure the suspect knew his rights against self-incrimination, and knowingly waived those rights.
And hence the rule of McNabb-Mallory: The longer you’re being held by the government without being informed of the charges against you, the less likely anything you say will be voluntary. At some point, your statement is going to be by definition involuntary, unless the government has taken some affirmative action to ensure it really was voluntary.
Given this, §3501 is really a dead letter. Oh, there have been those who argue that its effect is what Congress intended, the nullification of the case law (see, e.g., U.S. v. Dickerson, 166 F.3d 667 (4th Cir. 1999)). But all §3501 says is that, if a statement was really voluntary, then it is admissible. And that is precisely what the case law also says.
So we come to today’s case, Corley v. U.S. The decision was 5-4, split right down the (jurisprudentially) liberal/conservative line. Souter wrote for the majority, joined by Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg and Breyer. Alito fired off the dissent, joined by Roberts, Scalia and Thomas.
And Souter — whom we like immensely — messed it up. Of all Justices, he was the one we expected to really get it, and lay out the real policy and uphold the majesty and wisdom of the law. Instead, he made a hash of it.
All he had to do is say, “yes, §3501 means what it says. But it does not do what Congress meant. The plain language of the statute does not affect our case law in the slightest.” We are willing to bet money that Scalia would have joined the majority if he had said that. And he might have taken the others with him for a Roberts-pleasing unanimous decision.
But instead, Souter said §3501 meant what it said as to Miranda, but it did not mean what it said as to McNabb-Mallory. His internally-inconsistent, self-contradictory interpretation required 18 pages of justification. At the end, he concluded that Congress didn’t mean to nullify McNabb-Mallory while trying to nullify Miranda, and so a Mirandized confession is still excludable if made during an extensive pre-presentment delay.
Souter’s reasoning was unnecessarily convoluted, and required a patchwork of equally risible arguments to fill in the obvious gaps. In dissent, Alito seems to gleefully dissect each one in turn. You just know he was grinning like a fool while writing (or directing) some of these passages. Oh sure, he tries for a veneer of objectivity with phrases like “the Court cites no authority for a canon of interpretation that favors a ‘negative implication’ of this sort over clear and express statutory language.” But that can’t conceal the snark within. Although Scalia might have had more fun with the point that “although we normally presume that Congress means in a statute what it says there, the Court today concludes that §3501(a) does not mean what it says,” it’s obvious that Alito was enjoying himself too.
Interestingly, the dissent does not disagree with the majority’s result, but only with its analysis. We really do think that if Souter had thought it through, he could have had a unanimous opinion clearing up this misunderstood line of cases for posterity.
That’s okay, we just did it for you.