The fourteenth CHIEF JUSTICE of the United States, Earl Warren presided over the most sweeping judicial reinterpretation of the Constitution in generations. He served from October 1953 to June 1969. In that time the SUPREME COURT, overruling the doctrine that SEPARATE BUT EQUAL facilities for black persons satisfied the requirement of EQUAL PROTECTION, outlawed official racial SEGREGATION in every area of life. The Court ended the long-established rural bias of legislative representation by opening the question to judicial scrutiny and then ruling that citizens must be represented equally in state legislatures and the national House of Representatives. It imposed constitutional restraints for the first time on the law of LIBEL, hitherto a matter entirely of state concern. It applied to the states the standards set by the BILL OF RIGHTS for federal CRIMINAL PROCEDURE : the right of all poor defendants to free counsel, for example, and the prohibition of unreasonable SEARCHES AND SEIZURES, enforced by the EXCLUSIONARY RULE. It limited government power to punish unorthodox beliefs and enlarged the individual's freedom to express herself or himself in unconventional, even shocking ways.
The WARREN COURT, as it was generally called, had as profound an impact on American life as any Supreme Court since the time of JOHN MARSHALL. It was extraordinary not only in the scale but in the direction of its exercise of power. From Marshall's day to the Court's clash with President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT in the 1930s judges had exercised a conservative influence in the American system. Shortly before his appointment to the Court in 1941 ROBERT H. JACKSON wrote that "never in its entire history can the Supreme Court be said to have for a single hour been representative of anything except the relatively conservative forces of its day." But the Warren Court in its time was perhaps the principal engine of American liberal reform.
Earl Warren seemed an unlikely figure to lead such a judicial revolution. He was a Republican politician, the elected attorney general of California and for three terms its phenomenally popular governor. In 1948 he was the Republican candidate for vice-president, on the ticket headed by Thomas E. Dewey. On naming him Chief Justice, President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER emphasized his "middle-of-the-road philosophy." Yet within a few years billboards in the South demanded Warren's IMPEACHMENT, and the paranoid right charged that he was doing the work of communism. Putting aside the rantings of extremists, there was no doubt that as Chief Justice Warren consistently favored liberal values and unembarrassedly translated them into constitutional doctrine. Where did that commitment come from in a man whose appearance was that of a bland, hearty political figure?
There were in fact clues in his life and earlier career. He was born in Los Angeles in 1891, the son of a Norwegian immigrant who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He knew poverty and personal tragedy. As a young man he was a railroad callboy, waking up the gangs, and he saw men with their legs cut off in accidents carried in on planks. His father was murdered, the murderer never found: a traumatic event that must have helped to point Warren in the direction of justice, legal and social. He put himself through college and law school at the University of California. After a brief try at private practice he spent all his life in public office, as a local prosecutor and crusading district attorney before winning statewide office.
In California politics he at first had the support of conservatives. As attorney general he blocked the nomination of Max Radin, a law professor known as a legal realist, to the state supreme court because Radin was a "radical." As attorney general and governor Warren was a leading proponent of the WORLD WAR II federal order removing all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast and putting them in desolate camps; opposing their return in 1943, he said, "If the Japs are released, no one will be able to tell a saboteur from any other Jap." (In a memoir published after his death, Warren wrote: "I have since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens.?")
But in 1945 Warren astounded political California by proposing a state program of prepaid medical insurance. Characteristically, he did so not for ideological but for human, practical reasons: he had fallen ill and realized how catastrophic serious illness would be for a person without resources. Then, in his last two terms as governor, he became an apostle of liberal Republicanism. A later Democratic governor, Edmund G. Brown, said Warren "was the best governor California ever had.? He felt the people of...