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Miranda v. Arizona: Exploring Primary Sources Behind the Supreme Court Case

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Miranda Graphic 06012016“You have the right to remain silent….” These words, and the rest of the legal warning that follows, are so well-known that they’ve almost become a synonym for “You’re under arrest.” They occupy such a familiar place in popular culture that it might seem as though they’d been part of U.S. law for centuries. However, the now-ubiquitous Miranda warning only came into being fifty years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled that the rights of a criminal suspect, Ernesto Miranda, had been violated because he had not been informed of his Constitutional protections against self-incrimination.

The Library of Congress is marking this landmark anniversary with the launch of  Miranda v. Arizona: The Rights to Justice, an online presentation of historical documents that shed light on the arguments around, and the reaction to, the Miranda ruling of 1966. These documents, which include papers written by and for several Supreme Court justices, allow students to explore the issues discussed by the justices as they considered the ramifications of the case. In addition, letters from law enforcement officers and members of the public illuminate the contentious public debate that erupted after the ruling.

Page from a memo from William J. Brennan to Earl Warren
Page from a memo from William J. Brennan to Earl Warren

One particularly powerful document for students to analyze is a page from a memorandum that associate justice William Brennan sent to chief justice Earl Warren about the case. Acknowledging that his 21-page response is lengthy, Brennan explains, “this will be one of the the most important opinions of our time…”

He then focuses on two words from Warren’s opinion that he says go “to the basic thrust of the approach to be taken.” He expounds,

In your very first sentence you state that the root problem is “the role society must assume, consistent with the federal Constitution, in prosecuting individuals for crime.” I would suggest that the root issue is “the restraints society must observe…”

Before introducing the memorandum, lead students in considering and naming the differences between “assuming a role” and “observing restraints.” They might respond in a free-write, create a chart, or discuss in small groups and then report to the class. Distribute or point to the online facsimile of the document and allow students time to read it, attending to how Brennan uses “role” vs. “restraints” and “assume” vs. “observe.” In the context of Warren’s opinion, how does changing the word change the meaning? Finally, invite students to consider whether Brennan was correct about the importance of the Miranda v. Arizona decision. They might explore the online presentation to gather additional evidence to support their claim.

Each of the documents in this presentation presents similarly powerful opportunities for student exploration. You might ask students to read pairs of the documents in dialogue with one another, comparing each writer’s perspective on the core issues of the case.

What other aspects of everyday life that we take for granted were shaped by court cases like Miranda v. Arizona?


  1. These documents, which include papers written by and for several Supreme Court justices“assuming a role” and “observing restraints.”examining and analysing and interpreting and exploring for justice.

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