Earl Warren served as the 14th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, from 1953 to 1969. His term of office was marked by numerous rulings that reshaped U.S. law and society, and granted the lower federal courts wide berth in enforcing individual constitutional rights. Although criticized by numerous conservatives, Warren is considered to be one of the greatest chief justices in U.S. history.
Warren was born on March 19, 1891, in Los Angeles, California, to Matt Warren, a Norwegian immigrant, and Christine Hernlund, a Swedish immigrant. His father was employed by the Southern Pacific Railroad, and young Earl worked summers on a railroad crew to earn money to attend college.
After moving with his family to Bakersfield, California, Earl attended local schools. Following graduation from high school, he enrolled at the University of California - Berkeley, where he earned his B.A. in 1912. As a law student at Boalt Hall, he earned his J.D. in 1914. Earl Warren was admitted to the California bar that year.
Following a brief period of service in the U.S. Army during World War I, Warren returned to California, where he practiced law for a short time in San Francisco.
In 1920, Warren began to work for San Francisco County, and was appointed as district attorney of Alameda County in 1925, when the incumbent resigned. He was re-elected to three four-year terms. Known as a tough, but fair District Attorney, Warren also had a reputation for arrogance; however, none of his convictions was overturned on appeal.
A liberal Republican, Warren was elected California attorney general in 1938. Though he helped to modernize the office during his term, Warren's record was tarnished by the fact that he was a key player in the demand that people of Japanese ancestry be removed from the West Coast during World War II. Warren and others justified their actions by insisting that it was a matter of national security, and that California was vulnerable to Japanese spies. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the removal in Korematsu v. United States (1944). Thousands of Japanese Americans lost their property and businesses, and were moved to concentration camps for the remainder of the war. Warren defended his actions throughout his public career, but in retirement, he admitted the relocation was a terrible mistake based on unsubstantiated fears.
The governor's office and higher politics
In 1942, Warren was elected the 30th governor of California, and turned out to be a popular political leader. With Republican and Democratic party support, he was reelected in 1946 and 1950.
In 1948, Warren experienced his only political defeat when he was the Republican vice-presidential candidate on the Thomas E. Dewey ticket that lost to President Harry S. Truman. In 1952, Warren played a key role in securing the Republican presidential nomination for Dwight D. Eisenhower. In return, Eisenhower promised Warren an appointment to the Supreme Court when a vacancy occurred.
The Supreme Court
In September 1953, when Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died unexpectedly, President Eisenhower appointed Warren as his successor. In his first term as chief justice, Warren was faced with the issue of state-mandated racial segregation in public schools. In May 1954 Warren wrote the opinion for a unanimous court in Brown v. Board of Education. The case overruled the 1896 Supreme Court decision that had allowed racially segregated facilities on trains and in public schools. He wrote the opinion that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal, and that racial segregation in Kansas denied African Americans equal protection under the law.
The ruling unleashed a torrent of controversy and protest in the South, and immediately cemented Warren's image as a liberal. Billboards appeared throughout the South that read, "Impeach Earl Warren." But in 1955, despite the uproar, the Supreme Court ordered Kansas and other states with segregated schools to do away with their dual school systems.
That decision radically altered the traditional legal position on racial discrimination, and the modern civil rights movement was founded on it. That and other Warren Court decisions furthering racial equality were the catalyst for the civil-rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s. The civil-rights laws passed by Congress were unanimously upheld by the Warren Court.
Under Warren's direction, the court also sought equality in criminal justice. In 1963, the ruling in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright required counsel for defendants who could not afford it themselves. Two other important cases before the Warren Court were Mapp v. Ohio in 1961, which barred the use of illegally seized evidence; and Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, which required warnings to arrested persons of their right to counsel, including appointed counsel if they could not afford one.
The Warren Commission
In 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson persuaded Warren to head a commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Warren reluctantly agreed to the request, but was uncomfortable being part of the investigation. The commission published its conclusions, known as the Warren Report, in September 1964. According to the commission, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination. To this day, the 1964 report has remained controversial.
Warren retired from the Supreme Court in 1969. He died in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 1974. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1981.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Earl Warren.
Regarding Japanese Internment
The only reason that there has been no sabotage or espionage on the part of Japanese-Americans is that they are waiting for the right moment to strike.
Testimony before Congress
Regarding Amendment VI
Prior to any questioning, the person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him, and that he has a right to the presence of an attorney, either retained or appointed.
Writing in the opinion on Miranda v. Arizona, 1965
Regarding Watergate Scandal
If Nixon is not forced to turn over tapes of his conversations with the ring of men who were conversing on their violations of the law, then liberty will soon be dead in this nation. If Nixon gets away with that, then Nixon makes the law as he goes along — not the Congress nor the courts. The old Court you and I served so long will not be worthy of its traditions if Nixon can twist, turn and fashion the law as he sees fit.
Conversation with William O. Douglas
Quotes regarding Earl Warren.
By Dwight D. Eisenhower
He represents the kind of political, economic, and social thinking that I believe we need on the Supreme Court … he has a national name for integrity, uprightness, and courage that, again, I believe we need on the Court.
Describing the appointment of Warren to the Supreme Court at the time
By Dwight D. Eisenhower
The biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.
Reflecting on the appointment of Warren to the Supreme Court years later.
Warren is considered a dangerous and subversive character. He is an apparent sympathizer with the Communist Party and has rendered numerous decisions favorable to it. ... Warren is a rabid agitator for compulsory racial mongrelization and has handed down various decisions compelling whites to mix with negroes in the schools, in public housing, in restaurants and in public bathing facilities. He is known to work closely with the N.A.A.C.P. and favors the use of force and coercion to compel white school children to mingle intimately with negroes.
On an "Impeach Earl Warren" poster, 1958
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Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made by Jim Newton.
A masterful biography of the legendary chief justice of the United States and chairman of the Warren Commission by an award-winning journalist, using ...