Earl Warren was the 30th Chief Justice of the United States, serving in that role from 1953 until his retirement in 1969. The Warren Court oversaw a tumultuous period and made many rulings on legal and civil rights. Warren had served in other political positions before this, most notably as Governor of California.
Early Life: Family and Education
Earl Warren was born on March 19, 1891, in Los Angeles, California. His father, Mattias H. Warren (né Varren) was from Norway, while his mother, Crystal (née Hernlund) was from Sweden. His father originally worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad but was blacklisted after a strike, so the family moved to Bakersfield in 1894. He was later murdered during a robbery.
Warren attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science in 1912; he earned his Juris Doctor in law and was admitted to the California state bar in 1914. His legal career was briefly interrupted in 1917 when he enlisted to fight in the Army during World War I; he was discharged the following year.
Early Political Career: Anti-Corruption, Anti-Labor, Anti-Japanese
Between 1919 and 1920 Warren was a clerk for the Judicial Committee of the California State Assembly; after that, he was Deputy County Clerk for Oakland, California until 1925. The same year saw his marriage to Nina Elisabeth Palmquist Meyers, a Swedish-American widow. Warren adopted Meyers’ son, James; the couple would go on to have five more children.
From 1925 until 1939, Warren served as District Attorney of Alameda County, first appointed, but then reelected to three terms of four years each. He was known to be tough on crime, and in particular, took a hard stance against organized labor. One widely reported case came in 1936 when a murder of a ship officer occurred; though the murderer was not caught, Warren successfully found union organizers complicit in the crime after two of the three confessed. (He would later go on to commute their sentences in 1953.) He was also known for fighting corruption within the government, ran his office in a nonpartisan manner, and in 1931 was voted the best District Attorney in the country.
In 1938, Warren ran for state attorney general on every major party ticket (a situation called “cross-filing”) and was, naturally enough, elected, taking over from Ulysses S. Webb’s four decades at the job. During this time he was involved in many of the less savory laws of the Progressive Era, including forced sterilization of the handicapped for eugenic purposes and forcible confiscation of land from Japanese-Americans. With the start of World War II, this extended to being one of the chief forces behind the Japanese internment, calling the state’s large Japanese population an “Achilles heel of the entire civilian defense effort.” He was also a member of an anti-Asian group called the Native Sons of the Golden West. In his 1977 memoirs, Warren expressed regret for these actions.
As Governor of California: Public Works and Education Reform
Warren, a Republican, beat incumbent Culbert Olson for the office of Governor of California in 1942, winning again in 1946 and 1950. He was the first person to win the California governorship three times, and the only one to ever get three consecutive terms. (Currently, there is a two-term limit.) He was incredibly popular, earning 90 percent of the vote in his reelections, which again involved cross-filling (another first and only for California governors).
As in his previous work, Warren was determined to run the government effectively, modernizing his office. He also instituted many public works, especially for the purpose of hiring returning veterans; through World War II had ended the Great Depression, he and others feared a post-war relapse and modeled strategies after the New Deal. Most notably he was a major force behind the Collier-Burns Act in 1947, which taxed gasoline for the purpose of building new highways. This position, in defiance of many special interest groups, influenced the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which led to massive interstate highway construction.
Warren also worked to reform the state’s higher education system, using the University of California has a model. It was during his term that the Supreme Court ruled segregation of Mexican schoolchildren to be illegal (Mendez v. Westminster, 1947); Warren took the initiative to also desegregate schools for Native American and Asian-American children, in contrast to his earlier record on Japanese-Americans and anticipating his Supreme Court career.
Warren was nominated as the Republican vice presidential candidate, running with Thomas E. Dewey; in 1948, the pair suffered a surprise loss to Harry S Truman and Alben W. Barkley. Warren had intended to run for president in 1952, but the nomination instead went to Dwight D. Eisenhower with Richard Nixon as his running mate; as Nixon had previously promised to support Warren, this led to long-standing enmity between the two men.
Eisenhower offered Warren the position of Solicitor General, but when Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died unexpectedly, Warren was instead nominated to fill his position. He had no major opposition, with his record appealing to both liberals and conservatives within the Republican Party. Eisenhower said that “He has a national name for integrity, uprightness, and courage that, again, I believe we need on the Court.”
Due to his lack of judicial experience, Warren asked associate justice, Hugo L. Black, to preside over conferences for a short while; however, Warren quickly learned enough to take over. At the time, the court was decidedly liberal (all but Warren were Democratic appointees), but divided on whether they should practice judicial restraint in deference to Congress or actively work to achieve policies that they believed to be correct. Warren sided with the latter philosophy and influenced the Court in a more activist direction. (According to some, Eisenhower thus came to regret his appointment.)
There were several major decisions done under the Warren Court which have had large historical repercussions:
- Brown v. Board of Education (1954) declared segregation of public schools illegal, becoming the first major act to set the stage for the Civil Rights Movement.
- Engle v. Vitale (1962) outlawed mandatory prayer in public schools.
- Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) required a court-appointed lawyer for all indigent defendants, for any criminal proceeding. (Previously, this was only true for capital cases.)
- Reynolds v. Simms (1964) ordered states to realign legislature seats according to population, not merely county; the previous system had heavily favored rural areas over cities and suburbs.
- Miranda v. Arizona (1966) established the famous “Miranda warning” that must be read to criminal suspects before they are interrogated by law enforcement.
On November 29, 1963, less than a week after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson ordered Warren to head the investigation of the crime. The Warren Commission determined that his putative killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had acted alone; however, it kept many pertinent government secrets confidential from the public and thus fueled conspiracy theories surrounding the incident.
When it became clear that Warren’s old rival, Nixon, was going to become president in 1968, Warren decided to resign rather than have to swear him in. However, corruption allegations (later proven true) against Justice Abe Fortas, his planned successor, delayed his plans until June 1969, months after Nixon was sworn in by Warren. His replacement, Warren Burger, was seen as a weak figure; leading Earl Warren to regret his retirement.
Warren died five years until his retirement on July 9, 1974.
Warren is the most recent Supreme Court justice to have once been a governor, to have won a statewide election, or to be appointed immediately from serving in a political office.