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Reaffirming a Right

THE Supreme Court showed again this week that its decisions can veer from its supposed ideological profile. By a vote of 6 to 2, the court reaffirmed a basic tenent of its 1966 Miranda ruling on a defendant's right to counsel. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, specified that once an accused person has asked for a lawyer, he can't be interrogated again without benefit of counsel. That ruling gives added meaning to the rights established by the Miranda case. Without this clarification, police could restart their questioning right after a lawyer's first visit. This is essentially what happened in the case decided on Monday, Minnick v. Mississippi.

As Justice Kennedy, usually thought of as a staunch conservative, observed, the lower court decision which had upheld such practices failed to protect against ``coercive pressures'' on the accused.

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In many countries, such protection is unheard of. Police have a free hand to pry out confessions. The Fifth Amendment's ban on self-incrimination is a barrier against such practices creeping into the American system of justice. The Supreme Court has rightly held that access to legal counsel is critical to keeping that barrier intact.

Critics assert that rules demanding the presence of a lawyer are a hindrance to justice, unduly interfering with police work. Justice Antonin Scalia, joined in dissent by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, went so far as to decry ``a veritable fairyland castle of imagined constitutional restriction upon law enforcement.''

This week's decision adds needed mortar to the rights spelled out in 1966. But it's well to remember that many decisions of the last 24 years have recognized exceptions to, or ways around, Miranda. For instance, statements obtained in clear violation of a defendant's rights can be used to impeach a defendant's own testimony in court.

The process of tuning and clarifying the law goes on inexorably. We're glad to see that a strong majority of the court wants to assure that the right to counsel won't be worn down by that process.

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