Setting the course for civil rights and liberties in the 1950s and ’60s, Earl Warren, the 14th chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, dedicated half a century to serving in public office. The former Republican politician and California’s only three-term governor, was appointed to the court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. At the time, the president noted Warren represented “the kind of political, economic, and social thinking that I believe we need on the Supreme Court.” However, following Warren’s landmark rulings on cases such as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education that banned school segregation, Eisenhower would come to call the appointment “the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.”
Early Life and Career
Born March 19, 1891, in Los Angeles to working-class Scandinavian immigrants (his father worked for Southern Pacific Railroad), Warren grew up in Bakersfield, California, working summer jobs in railroading. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he received both his undergraduate and law degrees, and began practicing private law in San Francisco.
Warren then served stateside in the U.S. Army during World War I from 1917-1918, and started his career in public service the next year, first as a judiciary committee clerk for the California State Legislature, and soon moving to a position of deputy city attorney of Oakland. He then served as deputy district attorney, chief deputy district attorney and district attorney for Alameda County, and was elected attorney general of California in 1939, holding the position until 1943.
On January 4, 1943, Warren was sworn in as the governor of California, serving three terms. His legacy included the 1946 signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco, increasing unemployment insurance and pensions for the elderly, reducing the state sales tax, subsidizing child care centers and instituting prison reforms. He was a supporter of Japanese-American internment, a position he later said he “deeply regretted.”
In 1948, Warren was the Republican candidate for vice president, running with Gov. Thomas Dewey and losing the election to the Democratic ticket of Harry S. Truman and Sen. Alben Barkley. He also ran as a Republican presidential candidate in 1952 (Eisenhower won the party’s nomination).
Truman was later known to say Warren was a “Democrat and doesn’t know it,” the justice recalled in an interview with the Truman Library.
In 1953, during Warren’s third term as governor, Eisenhower nominated the fiscally conservative but socially progressive Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court as chief justice, succeeding Chief Justice Fred Vinson who died of a heart attack. Warren was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 1, 1954.
Brown v. Board of Education
Warren resigned his position of governor and served nearly 16 years as chief justice from 1953-1969. But just two months into his term, he began hearing oral arguments in the historic Brown v. Board of Education case. Overruling 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” verdict, the landmark decision found the case violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. While the Vinson court was strongly divided on the case, the Warren court, rehearing arguments made by Thurgood Marshall, was unanimous in its May 17, 1954 opinion.
“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Warren wrote. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Eisenhower did not give full support to or comment on the decision, but upheld the court’s decision. Applauded by liberals and detested by segregationists, the ruling spurred “Impeach Warren” billboards across the South. “Everything I did in my life that was worthwhile I caught hell for, ” he once said.
Notable Decisions and Appointments
Warren was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to chair the John F. Kennedy assassination investigation, from 1963-1964, that became better known as the Warren Commission. The resulting controversial report found Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman, although doubt and conspiracy theories continue to swirl around its validity.
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In addition to Brown, several other key rulings during Warren’s Supreme Court tenure earned him his “liberal reformist judge” label. In 1963, the court’s unanimous Gideon v. Wainwright ruling guaranteed the right to free counsel. In Mapp v. Ohio, in 1961, the court ruled 5-3 that illegally seized evidence, without a search warrant, could not be presented in state court criminal prosecutions
In 1966’s Miranda v. Arizona, the court held 5-4 that police must inform suspects of certain constitutional rights, including the right to an attorney, to remain silent and against self-incrimination, or the evidence is not admissible in court.
And in a unanimous 1967 decision, the court found in Loving v. Virginia that anti-miscegenation laws, those banning interracial marriages, were unconstitutional, under the 14 Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Warren also made his mark in what came to be known as the apportionment principle of “one person, one vote.” In 1964’s Reynolds v. Sims, the court ruled 8-1 that state legislative districts should be equal in population if possible, which led to redistricting in most states.
“But was it fair?” Warren often asked litigators during arguments.
Retirement and Death
Warren, who married Nina Palmquist Meyers in 1925, and had six children, retired from the Supreme Court in 1969. He died July 9, 1974, at the age of 83 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. In 1981, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian.
“When history is written, he’ll go down as one of the greatest chief justices the country has ever been blessed with,” Thurgood Marshall, then an associate Supreme Court justice, said following Warren’s death. “I think he is irreplaceable.”
“Earl Warren, 83, Who Led High Court In Time of Vast Social Change, Is Dead,” by Anthony Lewis, July 10, 1974, The New York Times.
“Earl Warren, 1953-1969,” Supreme Court Historical Society.
“Governor Earl Warren,” National Governors Association.
“History – Brown v. Board of Education Re-enactment,” United States Courts.
“Brown v. Board of Education,” Miller Center.