Random Walks and the Supreme Court

The Sound-Byte

Bluntly put, the Court knows that its previous rulings have been flawed, but following precedence is more important than being correct.

The Details

Random Walks are well known to scientists studying stochastic processes. The quintessential example of a random walk is the path taken by a drunk as he stumbles across a bridge. Sometimes forward, then a stagger to the left or right, and then back again. If the drunk is lucky, the leftward and rightward lunges will average out so that he doesn't fall off the side of the bridge. The distinguishing characteristic of random walks is that each step is affected by random forces, while the subject drifts aimlessly left or right without any effective mechanism for systematically correcting accumulated past errors.

That is the best way to describe the recent Supreme Court ruling on Miranda rights in Dickerson v. U.S. They must be drinking something over there at the Supreme Court.

Don't get me wrong, I am all in favor of the Fifth Amendment, but I must say it is rather quaint that a suspect must be told he has the right to a court-appointed lawyer, but not that you generally get what you pay for.

The problem is not so much with the decision, as is the dangerous decision-making process that the Court used to arrive at their ruling. Speaking for the majority, Justice Rehnquist justified the decision:

"Whether or not we would agree with Miranda's reasoning and its resulting rule were we addressing the issue in the first instance," its age and those other precedents "weigh heavily against overruling it now" [AP].

Bluntly put, the Court knows that its previous rulings have been flawed, but following precedence is more important than being correct. In other words, the court would rather the ship of state founder left and right in the accumulated random errors inherent in any mortal court, rather than fixing their eye firmly on the target and fighting to correct whatever forces have previously swept the ship off its true course.

Thus our Nation's highest court staggers to the left, then to the right.

The real danger with such random walks is when they are NOT random (for example, the drunk has a club left foot), or if there happens to be a run of errors in one direction or the other. By honoring precedence over fidelity to the Constitution, over time the errors can accumulate to the point of dashing the drunken Court on the rocks below the bridge, and taking our Constitution with them.

The Court might have to work harder if they validated each decision directly against the Constitution and the writings of the Founding Fathers, rather than a chain of precedents that are at best contaminated by some degree of random error, and at worst outright biases. But our Nation deserves no less.

Copyright © 1999 Daniel Weyrich.

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Last updated: August 20, 2000; Version: 1.1