|Former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court|
From: October 2, 1953 – June 23, 1969
|30th Governor of California|
From: January 4, 1943 – October 5, 1953
|20th Attorney General of California|
From: January 3, 1939 – January 4, 1943
|Predecessor||Ulysses S. Webb|
|Successor||Robert W. Kenny|
|Spouse(s)||Nina Elisabeth Meyers|
Earl Warren (March 19, 1891 – July 9, 1974) was an American statesman and judge, best known for his role as Chief Justice on the Supreme Court from 1953 to 1969. He was a liberal Republican, serving as governor of California from 1943–53 and as the losing GOP nominee for Vice President in 1948.
Warren was an activist judge who pushed for a liberal interpretation of the Constitution and more powerful role for the judiciary. Under his leadership, the Warren Court repeatedly ruled in favor of criminals and against prayer in school.
More a crass political manipulator than a legal scholar, Warren tried to finagle his replacement as Chief Justice in 1968 before Richard Nixon was elected president, but the U.S. Senate foiled Warren's scheme.
Early Professional Life
Warren was born in Los Angeles, the son of Methias H. ("Matt") Warren, a railroad worker, and Christine Hernlund. After Matt was blacklisted for joining in a strike, the family moved to Bakersfield, California, in 1894, where the father worked in a railroad repair yard, and the son had summer jobs in railroading. Warren always recalled how big corporations could dominate the lives of their employees and how powerless minority members were when faced with discrimination. He was strongly influenced by the reform currents of the Progressive Era to oppose corruption and promote democracy.
Warren graduated from Kern County High School and then attended college and law school at the University of California at Berkeley, earning a B.L. in 1912 and a LL.B. in 1914. He worked for a law firm before serving briefly in the army in 1918. He built his career at the Alameda County district attorney's office 1920–38. In 1926 he was elected to the first of three terms as district attorney. In 1925, he married Nina Palmquist Meyers, a widow with a young son. Warren adopted him, and the couple had five more children.
Shortly after taking office, irregularities were uncovered in the city of Oakland, the largest city in Alameda county. Warren vigorously investigated allegations that a deputy sheriff was taking bribes in connection with street-paving arrangements.
Warren soon gained a statewide reputation as a tough, no-nonsense district attorney who fought corruption in government; a 1931 survey voted listed him as the best district attorney in the country. He ran his office in a nonpartisan manner and strongly supported the autonomy of law enforcement agencies. But he also believed that police and prosecutors had to act fairly, and much of what would later lie at the heart of the Warren Court's revolution in criminal justice can be traced back to his days as an active prosecuting attorney.
In 1938, Warren ran successfully for the California attorney generalship. During his campaign, Earl Warren's father was murdered in his Bakersfield home, bludgeoned with a led pipe. When requested by the police to implement a stool pigeon into a suspect's cell to try and record a confession, Warren objected to the practice of secret taping, even to discover who had beaten his own father to death, to the shock of the police force. He expanded the office, and built greater cooperation among various law enforcement agencies. By 1942, Warren was one of the most popular officials in California, and he ran for and was elected governor on the Republican ticket. He was reelected in 1946 and 1950.
As governor Warren modernized the office of governor, and state government generally.
Like all progressives, Warren believed in efficiency and planning. During World War II he aggressively pursued postwar economic planning. Fearing another postwar decline that would rival the depression years, Governor Earl Warren initiated public works projects similar to those of the New Deal to capitalize on wartime tax surpluses and provide jobs for returning veterans. Warren also built up the state's higher education system based on the University of California and its vast network of small universities and community colleges. For example, his support of the Collier-Burns Act in 1947 raised gasoline taxes that funded a massive program of freeway construction. Unlike states where tolls or bonds funded highway construction, California's gasoline taxes were earmarked for building the system. Warren's support for the bill was crucial because his status as a popular governor strengthened his views, in contrast with opposition from trucking, oil, and gas lobbyists. The Collier-Burns Act helped influence passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Act in 1956, setting a pattern for national highway construction.
Like all state, local and national officials in California, he supported the relocation of everyone of Japanese descent in 1942–44. For many years Warren defended the action, maintaining that it seemed the right and necessary thing to do at the time; in his memoirs, published after his death, he finally acknowledged that relocation had been an error.Thomas E. Dewey as vice presidential candidate; four years earlier, Dewey had run with another governor, John W. Bricker of Ohio. The GOP ticket was defeated by Truman, much to the astonishment of most observers and pollsters, who had predicted the defeat of Truman. In 1952, Warren was California's favorite son candidate for president, but he had to head off a revolt by Senator Richard M. Nixon who supported Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower and Nixon were elected, and the bad blood between Warren and Nixon was apparent.
Eisenhower offered, and Warren had accepted, the post of solicitor general, with the promise of a seat on the Supreme Court. But before it was announced Chief Justice Fred Vinson unexpectedly died in September 1953, and Eisenhower picked Warren to replace him. Eisenhower will later view his nomination of Warren as a mistake, alongside his nomination of William Brennan, answering that he made two mistakes during his time as president in an interview after his retirement, and that "[the mistakes] are both on the Supreme Court."
Warren took his seat January 11, 1954 on a recess appointment; the Senate confirmed him six weeks later. Despite his lack of judicial experience, his years in the Alameda County district attorney's office and as state attorney general gave him far more knowledge of the law in practice than most other members of the Court had.
Warren's greatest asset, what made him in the eyes of many of his admirers "Super Chief," was his political skill in manipulating the other justices. Over the years his ability to lead the Court, to forge majorities in support of major decisions, and to inspire liberal forces around the nation, outweighed his intellectual weaknesses. Warren realized his weakness and asked the senior associate justice, Hugo L. Black, to preside over conferences until he became accustomed to the drill. A quick study, Warren soon was in fact as well as in name the Court's chief justice.
All the justices had been appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt or Truman, and all were committed New Deal liberals. They disagreed about the role that the courts should play in achieving liberal goals. The Court was split between two warring factions. Felix Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson led one faction, which insisted upon judicial self-restraint and constantly warned about the judicial activism of conservative justices that had led to the constitutional crisis of 1937. For them, courts should defer to the policymaking prerogatives of the White House and congress. Hugo Black and William O. Douglas led the opposing activist faction; they agreed the court should defer in matters of economic policy, but felt the judicial agenda had been transformed from questions of property rights to those of individual liberties, and in this area courts should play a more activist role. Warren's belief that the judiciary must seek to do justice, placed him with the activists although he did not have a solid majority until after Frankfurter's retirement in 1962.
Brown v. Board of Education
Warren acceded to the position of Chief Justice while Brown v. Board of Education was being reargued at the behest of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who ordered re-argument as a stalling tactic, to allow the Court to gather a unanimous consensus around a Brown opinion that would outlaw segregation. Chief Justice Fred Vinson was one such stumbling block.
Warren convened a meeting of the justices, and presented to them the simple argument that the only reason to sustain segregation was an honest belief in the inferiority of African Americans. Warren further submitted that the Court must overrule Plessy to maintain its legitimacy as an institution of liberty, and it must do so unanimously to avoid massive Southern resistance. He began to build a unanimous opinion. Although most justices were immediately convinced, Warren spent some time after this famous speech convincing everyone to sign onto the opinion. Justices Robert Jackson and Stanley Reed finally decided to drop their dissent to what was by then an opinion backed by all the others. The final decision was unanimous.
Liberals consider Warren's final opinion a political masterwork, not just for his political gamesmanship, but for his general writing, making use of dubious social science research to draw legal conclusions, and laying the groundwork for busing.
The very first case put Warren's leadership skills to an extraordinary test. The Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP (a small, primarily white legal group separate from the much better known NAACP) had been waging a systematic legal fight against the "separate but equal" doctrine enunciated in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and finally had challenged Plessy in a series of five related cases, which had been argued before the Court in the spring of 1953. However the justices had been unable to decide the issue and asked to rehear the case in fall 1953, with special attention to whether the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause prohibited the operation of separate public schools for whites and blacks.
While all but one justice personally rejected segregation, the self-restraint faction questioned whether the Constitution gave the Court the power to order its end. The activist faction believed the Fourteenth Amendment did give the necessary authority and were pushing to go ahead. Warren, who held only a recess appointment, held his tongue until the Senate, dominated by southerners, confirmed his appointment.
Warren told his colleagues after oral argument that he believed segregation violated the Constitution and that only if one considered African Americans inferior to whites could the practice be upheld. But he did not push for a vote. Instead, he talked with the justices and encouraged them to talk with each other as he sought a common ground on which all could stand. Finally he had eight votes, and the last holdout, Stanley Reed of Kentucky, agreed to join the rest. Warren drafted the basic opinion in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and kept circulating and revising it until he had an opinion endorsed by all the members of the Court.
The unanimity Warren achieved helped speed the drive to desegregate public schools, which mostly came about under President Richard M. Nixon. Throughout his years as Chief, Warren succeeded in keeping all decisions concerning segregation unanimous. Brown applied to schools, but soon the Court enlarged the concept to other state actions, striking down racial classification in many areas. Congress ratified the process in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Warren did compromise by agreeing to Frankfurter's demand that the Court go slowly in implementing desegregation; Warren used Frankfurter's suggestion that a 1955 decision (Brown II) include the phrase "all deliberate speed."
The Brown decision of 1954 marked, in dramatic fashion, the radical shift in the Court's--and the nation's--priorities from issues of property rights to civil liberties. Under Warren the courts became an active partner in governing the nation, although still not coequal. Warren never saw the courts as a backward-looking branch of government.
The Brown decision was a powerful moral statement clad in a weak constitutional analysis; Warren was never a legal scholar on a par with Frankfurter or a great advocate of particular doctrines, as was Black. Instead, he believed that in all branches of government common sense, decency, and elemental justice were decisive, not stare decisis, tradition or the text of the Constitution. He wanted results. He never felt that doctrine alone should be allowed to deprive people of justice. He felt racial segregation was simply wrong, and Brown, whatever its doctrinal defects, remains a landmark decision primarily because of Warren's majestic interpretation of the equal protection clause to mean that children should not be shunted to a separate world reserved for minorities.
Warren's priority on fairness shaped other major decisions. In 1962, over the strong objections of Frankfurter, the Court agreed that questions regarding malapportionment in state legislatures were not political issues, and thus were not outside the Court's purview. For years underpopulated rural areas had deprived metropolitan centers of equal representation in state legislatures. In Warren's California, Los Angeles County had only one state senator. Cities had long since passed their peak, and now it was the middle class suburbs that were underepresented. Frankfurter insisted that the Court should avoid this "political thicket" and warned that the Court would never be able to find a clear formula to guide lower courts in the rash of lawsuits sure to follow.
But Douglas found such a formula: "one man, one vote." In the key apportionment case Reynolds v. Sims (1964) Warren delivered a civics lesson: "To the extent that a citizen's right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen," Warren declared. "The weight of a citizen's vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. This is the clear and strong command of our Constitution's Equal Protection Clause." Unlike the desegregation cases, in this instance, the Court ordered immediate action, and despite loud outcries from rural legislators, Congress failed to reach the two-thirds needed pass a constitutional amendment. The states complied, reapportioned their legislatures quickly and with minimal troubles. Numerous commentators have concluded reapportionment was the Warren Court's great "success" story.
Frankfurter retired and President Lyndon B. Johnson named labor lawyer Arthur Goldberg to replace him. Goldberg gave Warren the fifth vote for the majority the activists wanted. William Brennan, a liberal Democrat appointed by Eisenhower in 1956, was the intellectual leader of the activist faction that included Black and Douglas. Brennan complemented Warren's political skills with the strong legal skills Warren lacked. Warren and Brennan met before the regular conferences to plan out their strategy.
Due process revolution
While most Americans eventually agreed that the Court's desegregation and apportionment decisions were fair and right, disagreement about the "due process revolution" continues today. Warren took the lead in criminal justice. Warren, despite his years as a tough prosecutor, always insisted that the police must play fair or the accused should go free. Warren was privately outraged at what he considered police abuses that ranged from warrant-less searches to forced confessions.
Warren's Court ordered lawyers for indigent defendants, in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), and prevented prosecutors from using evidence seized in illegal searches, in Mapp v. Ohio (1961). The famous case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) summed up Warren's philosophy. Everyone, even one accused of crimes, still enjoyed constitutionally protected rights, and the police had to respect those rights and issue a specific warning when making an arrest. Warren did not believe in coddling criminals; this in Terry v. Ohio (1968) he gave police officers leeway to stop and frisk those they had reason to believe held weapons.
Conservatives angrily denounced the "handcuffing of the police." Violent crime and homicide rates shot up nationwide; in New York City, for example, after steady to declining trends until the early 1960s, the homicide rate doubled in the period from 1964-74 from just under 5 per 100,000 at the beginning of that period to just under 10 per 100,000 in 1974. After 1992 the homicide rates fell sharply.
The Warren Court's activism stretched into a new turf, especially First Amendment rights. The Court's decision outlawing mandatory school prayer in Engel v. Vitale (1962) brought vehement complaints that echoed into the 21st century.
Warren worked to nationalize the Bill of Rights by applying it to the states. Moreover, in one of the landmark cases decided by the Court, Griswold v. Connecticut (1963), the Warren Court announced a constitutionally protected right of privacy. No one at the time expected the court, after Warren's retirement, would use the decision to allow abortion.
With the exception of the desegregation decisions, few decisions were unanimous. The eminent scholar John Marshall Harlan took Frankfurter's place as the Court's self-constraint spokesman, often joined by Potter Stewart and Byron R. White. But with the appointment of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, and Abe Fortas (replacing Goldberg), Warren could count on six votes in most cases.
In November 1963 President Johnson demanded in the name of patriotic duty that Warren head the governmental commission that investigated the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It became widely known as the Warren Commission. It was an unhappy experience for Warren, who did not want the assignment. As a judge, he valued candor and justice, but as a politician he recognized the need for secrecy in some matters. He insisted that the commission report should be unanimous, and so he compromised on a number of issues in order to get all the members to sign the final version. However, contrary to the general "single bullet theory" that appears to be reputable, documents show that Gerald Ford had changed autopsy reports in order for the narrative to fit as he intended. The initial draft had stated "back at a point slightly above the shoulder to the right of the spine" though Ford changed it to "back of his neck slightly to the right of the spine". Warren, siding with Ford, concurred with the single bullet theory.
In June 1968, Warren, fearing that Nixon would be elected president that year, worked out a retirement deal with President Johnson. Associate Justice Abe Fortas, who was secretly Johnson's top adviser, brokered the deal in which Fortas would become chief justice. The plan was foiled by the Senate, which ripped into Fortas's record and refused to confirm him. In 1969 Warren learned that Fortas had made a secret lifetime contract for $20,000 a year to provide private legal advice to Louis Wolfson, a friend and financier in deep legal trouble; Warren immediately demanded and got Fortas' resignation. Warren presided over the Court's October 1968 term and retired in spring 1969; Nixon named Warren E. Burger to succeed him.
Scholars agree that as a judge, Warren does not rank with intellectual giants such as Louis Brandeis or William Rehnquist in terms of jurisprudence. His opinions were not always clearly written, and his legal logic was often muddled. His influence lay in his political maneuvering and his belief in judicial supremacy for the Supreme Court rather than Congress to establish new rights.
Conservatives attacked his judicial activism as inappropriate and have called for courts to be deferential to the elected political branches. Liberals who admit that the Warren Court went too far in some areas, insist that most of its controversial decisions struck a responsive chord in the nation and have become embedded in the law.
- Jim Newton, Justice For All: Earl Warren and the Nation He made (New York: Riverhead Books, 2006), 93.
- John Aubrey Douglass, "Earl Warren's New Deal: Economic Transition, Postwar Planning, and Higher Education in California." Journal of Policy History 2000 12(4): 473-512
- Daniel J. B. Mitchell, “Earl Warren's Fight for California's Freeways: Setting a Path for the Nation.” Southern California Quarterly 2006 88(2): 205-238 34p.
- John Fund, "Miers Remorse: Conservatives are right to be skeptical," October 10, 2005; available online at: http://www.opinionjournal.com/diary/?id=110007384
- See Smithsonian, “Separate is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education’’
- For text see BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
- Robert L. Carter, "The Warren Court and Desegregation," Michigan Law Review, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 237-248 in JSTOR
- James A. Gazell, "One Man, One Vote: Its Long Germination," The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Sep., 1970), pp. 445-462 in JSTOR
- See REYNOLDS v. SIMS, 377 U.S. 533 (1964)
- Robert B. McKay, "Reapportionment: Success Story of the Warren Court." Michigan Law Review, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Dec., 1968), pp. 223-236 in JSTOR
- See Miranda v. Arizona
- Ronald Kahn and Ken I. Kersch, eds. The Supreme Court And American Political Development (2006) online at p. 442
- Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed: Self-congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy (1995) online at p. 26-29
- See ENGEL v. VITALE, 370 U.S. 421 (1962)
- See Griswold v. Connecticut (No. 496) 151 Conn. 544, 200 A.2d 479, reversed
- JFK Lancer: Gerald Ford's Terrible Fiction
- Artemus.Ward, "An Extraconstitutional Arrangement: Lyndon Johnson and the Fall of the Warren Court" White House Studies 2002 2(2): 171-183
- Belknap, Michael, The Supreme Court Under Earl Warren, 1953-1969 (2005), 406pp excerpt and text search
- Brest, Levinson, et al. Processes of Constitutional Decisionmaking, Cases & Materials, 5th Ed., pp 898–950.
- Cray, Ed. Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren (1997), the most comprehensive biography; highly favorable; strong on politics excerpt and text search
- Horwitz, Morton J. The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice (1999) excerpt and text search
- Lewis, Anthony. "Earl Warren" in Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. Volume: 4. (1997) pp 1373–1400; includes all members of the Warren Court. online edition
- Newton, Jim. Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made (2006), solid biography by journalist excerpt and text search
- Patterson, James T. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy (2001) online edition
- Pietrusza, David 1948: Harry Truman's Improbable Victory and the Year that Changed America, New York: Union Square Press, 2011.
- Powe, Lucas A.. The Warren Court and American Politics (2002) excerpt and text search
- Scheiber, Harry N. Earl Warren and the Warren Court: The Legacy in American and Foreign Law (2006)
- Schwartz, Bernard. The Warren Court: A Retrospective (1996) excerpt and text search
- Schwartz, Bernard. "Chief Justice Earl Warren: Super Chief in Action." Journal of Supreme Court History 1998 (1): 112-132
- Tushnet, Mark. The Warren Court in Historical and Political Perspective (1996) excerpt and text search
- White, G. Edward. Earl Warren (1982), by leading scholar
- Time Magazine. "The Chief," Time Nov. 17, 1967
- Warren, Earl. The Memoirs of Earl Warren (1977), goes only to 1954
- Warren, Earl. The Public Papers of Chief Justice Earl Warren, ed. by Henry M. Christman; (1959), speeches and decisions, 1946-1958 online edition.
- Rawls, James J. "The Earl Warren Oral History Project: an Appraisal." Pacific Historical Review 1987 56(1): 87–97. Begun during the 1960s by the Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office, the collection includes more than 50 volumes of interviews recorded and transcribed during 1971–81, totaling about 12,000 pages.