Study Guide

Justice Harlan in Miranda v. Arizona

By Supreme Court of the United States

Justice Harlan

All in the Family

John M. Harlan, in addition to having the whitest name ever, was appointed to the Court by President Eisenhower in 1955. He came from a wealthy, politically involved family and was a standout student at Princeton, where he won a Rhodes Scholarship. So yeah, smart guy.

No pro football career like Byron White, though.

Harlan's grandfather, John Marshall I, was also on the Supreme Court back in the day. He made a name for himself by being the only vote against the infamous "separate but equal" decision in 1898 in Plessy v. Ferguson, insisting that the Constitution was "color-blind," and if a white man and a black man wanted to sit in the same train car, well, that was their right. That was a gutsy move in 1898, even if you were a Supreme Court justice. So, Harlan's grandpa was famous for standing up for change and progress, while Harlan himself was known for being cautious about it.

Harlan was the first justice to ever face confirmation hearings, something that's standard operating procedure these days. This was because nine senators from the South feared he'd be pro-desegregation in his rulings.

They were right.

Even though his decisions were generally moderate to conservative, he followed in Grandpa Harlan's footsteps by consistently voting in favor of desegregation and civil rights. He was in the majority when the Court struck down the ban on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia (1967).

In the Miranda v. Arizona court case, Harlan wasn't the only justice to dissent, but he was the most vocal. His dissent is written in the text itself (not all dissenting justices get their opinions written up), and he makes some very strong points. Harlan, while believing that the Constitution didn't have the answer for everything forever, was known for thinking that the Supreme Court should not be "a general haven for reform movements", meaning big changes should not come from those nine judges. He thought the Miranda decision was a huge judicial overreach:

"Society has always paid a stiff price for law and order, and peaceful interrogation is not one of the dark moments of the law." (HarlanDissent.III.7)

Harlan was all about pumping the brakes and making sure that the country wasn't making any rash decisions that might do more harm than good.

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