Earl Warren (1891-1974) was a prominent 20th century leader of American politics and law. Elected California governor in 1942, Warren secured major reform legislation during his three terms in office. After failing to claim the Republican nomination for the presidency, he was appointed the 14th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953. The landmark case of his tenure was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), in which the Court unanimously determined the segregation of schools to be unconstitutional. The Warren Court also sought electoral reforms, equality in criminal justice and the defense of human rights before its chief justice retired in 1969.
Warren, born and raised in California, was elected district attorney of Alameda County in 1925, California attorney general in 1938, and governor in 1942. In three terms as governor he reorganized the state government and secured major reform legislation-modernizing the state’s hospital system, prisons, and highways, and expanding old-age and unemployment benefits. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him the fourteenth chief justice of the United States. He retired in 1969.
There have been two great creative periods in American public law. During the first, the Marshall Court laid down the foundations of the American system. During the second, the Warren era, the Court rewrote much of the corpus of constitutional law. Warren was the leader in his Court’s work, actively exercising his authority to reach the results he favored. In terms of creative impact Warren’s tenure can be compared only with that of Marshall.
As a successful chief executive, Warren developed leadership abilities that enabled him to guide his Court effectively. His fellow justices all stressed his forceful leadership, particularly at the conferences where cases are discussed and decided. Justice William O. Douglas ranked him with John Marshall and Charles Evans Hughes ‘as our three greatest Chief Justices.’ Those behind the ‘Impeach Earl Warren’ movement were correct in considering him the prime mover in the Warren Court’s jurisprudence.
Warren’s leadership can best be seen in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision-the most important by his Court. When the justices first discussed the case under Warren’s predecessor, they were sharply divided. But under Warren, they ruled unanimously that school segregation was unconstitutional. The unanimous decision was a direct result of Warren’s efforts. This and other Warren Court decisions furthering racial equality were the catalyst for the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s and the civil rights laws passed by Congress, themselves upheld by the Warren Court.
Next in importance were the reapportionment decisions. The Court ruled that the ‘one-person, one-vote’ principle controls in all legislative apportionments. The result has been an electoral reform shifting voting power from rural districts to urban and suburban areas.
In addition to racial and political equality, the Warren Court sought equality in criminal justice. The landmark here was Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which required counsel for indigent defendants. Warren’s emphasis on fairness in criminal proceedings also led to Mapp v. Ohio (1961), barring illegally seized evidence and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), requiring warnings to arrested persons of their right to counsel, including appointed counsel if they could not afford one.
Earlier Courts had stressed property rights. Under Warren the emphasis shifted to personal rights, placing them in a preferred constitutional position. This was particularly true of First Amendment rights. Protection was extended to civil rights demonstrators and criticism of public officials; the power to restrain publication on obscenity grounds was also limited. Moreover, the Court recognized new personal rights, notably a constitutional right of privacy.
Warren expressed disappointment that he had never become president, although he had actively sought the Republican nomination in 1948 and 1952. Yet, as chief justice, he was able to accomplish more than most presidents. He led his Court to what Justice Abe Fortas once termed ‘the most profound and pervasive revolution ever achieved by substantially peaceful means.’
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.