When a suspect on a TV crime show asks for an attorney, the fictional detectives complain that their target has "lawyered up." That's a pejorative description of an important legal protection for individuals in custody who might be bullied into a confession. Last week, the Supreme Court needlessly weakened that safeguard by overruling a relatively recent precedent.
Dividing along liberal-conservative lines, five justices rejected a claim by Jesse Jay Montejo, a Louisiana death row inmate, that his confession was used against him in court in violation of a 1986 high court decision strengthening the 6th Amendment right to counsel. In the earlier case, the court had suppressed the confessions of two convicted murderers from Michigan because police questioned them before they could consult their lawyers.
Writing for the court in 1986, Justice John Paul Stevens said that "after a formal accusation has been made -- and a person who had previously been just a 'suspect' has become an 'accused' within the meaning of the 6th Amendment -- the constitutional right to the assistance of counsel is of such importance that the police may no longer employ techniques for eliciting information from an uncounseled defendant that might have been entirely proper at an earlier stage of their investigation." In practical terms, this meant that once a suspect had requested a lawyer, police couldn't interrogate him.