Warren, Earl Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Under Warren’s leadership, the Supreme Court forged new doctrines in equal justice and fair trial procedures and altered the character of representation in the political system. The Warren Court’s due process revolution produced profound changes in the law and transformed the way society perceived civil liberties and civil rights.

The son of Scandinavian immigrants, Warren grew up in Bakersfield, California, where his father was a railroad worker. Warren attended the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his law degree in 1914. After briefly serving as an officer in the army in World War I, he began work in the office of the Alameda County district attorney and became identified with the Republican Party.Eisenhower, Dwight D.;nominations to the Court

Earl Warren

(Supreme Court Historical Society)

In 1926 Warren was elected district attorney for Alameda County, a position he held for thirteen years. He quickly made a name for himself as a racket-buster, and a 1931 survey of U.S. district attorneys declared Warren the best in the United States. He was elected attorney general of California in 1938 and modernized the office during his four-year term. As the state’s attorney general at the beginning of World War II, Warren was a strong advocate of the forced evacuation of persons of JapaneseWorld War II;Japanese American relocationJapanese American relocation;Warren, Earl ancestry from the West Coast an action he later regretted. In 1942 he was elected governor and served for an unprecedented three terms, once being nominated by both major parties under California’s old system of cross-filing.

As governor, Warren was an able administrator who reorganized the state government and secured the passage of reform legislation that built highways, modernized the hospital system, improved state prisons, and made the University of California system the envy of other states. He endeared himself to liberal groups by taking stands against racial prejudice and urging increased social security benefits including improved old-age and unemployment benefits. The popularity of his administration made him a national figure in the Republican Party, and he was Thomas Dewey’s running mate in the 1948 presidential election. In 1952 Warren played a key role in the latter stages of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential campaign. After the election, Eisenhower promised Warren appointment to the Supreme Court upon the first vacancy that might occur. Eisenhower’s attorney general, Herbert Brownell, held further discussions with Warren about accepting an appointment as solicitor general until there was an opening on the Court.

Appointment to the Court

Warren had accepted an offer to be solicitor general in the Eisenhower administration when on September 8, 1953, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson suddenly died of a heart attack. Eisenhower appointed Warren to the chief justiceship, and Warren took up his new duties at the beginning of the 1953 term. Because Congress was not in session at the time of his appointment, Warren was not confirmed by the Senate until March 1, 1954. Warren served on the Court until his retirement on June 23, 1969.

In 1963 under pressure from President Lyndon B. Johnson, Warren agreed to chair the special commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. KennedyKennedy, John F.. The Warren Commission report was a controversial document, and the chief justice was criticized for participating in an extrajudicial assignment.

In June, 1968, Warren informed Johnson that he intended to retire as soon as a successor could be named. Johnson nominated Associate Justice Abe Fortas. When alleged financial misconduct by Fortas was revealed, his nomination was withdrawn, and Warren agreed to stay on until the next president could name his successor. Warren presided at the opening of the 1968 term, and when Richard M. Nixon was elected president, the chief justice repeated his offer of resignation but preferred to wait until the end of the term. Nixon accepted Warren’s suggestion, and eventually nominated Warren E. Burger, who was confirmed by the Senate and took the oath of office on the day of Warren’s retirement on June 23, 1969.

Equal Protection

Equal protection clauseDuring Warren’s first term, the Court ruled on the constitutionality of racially segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education[case]Brown v. Board of Education[Brown v. Board of Education] (1954). The justices had heard the case argued in the preceding term but had asked for re-argument to address the applicability of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Warren presided over a Court divided over the issues of the case with four justices apparently opposed to overruling the separate but equal doctrine enunciated in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Displaying the leadership and straightforward defining of issues that were to characterize his chief justiceship, Warren won over the other justices, and a unanimous Court declared that separate facilities were inherently unequal. At his first Brown conference, Warren defined the issue in moral terms: Plessy could be sustained only on the premise that blacks were inferior to whites, and he did not grant that premise. At the same time, Warren cautioned that remedies should be determined in the future and with the participation of representatives of the affected states. Warren’s opinion for the Court was in many ways the watershed constitutional case of the century. By finding segregation in violation of the equal protection clause, the Court put the nation on a new path in race relations. It also signaled that if the other branches of government defaulted in their responsibilities, the Court would ensure that constitutional rights were protected.

In the next term, in Brown II[case]Brown II[Brown II] (1955) Warren wrote a decree to implement an end to segregated schools that was gradual and mindful of local conditions. The Court, following Warren’s lead, subsequently struck down every segregation law challenged before it and ruled such separation invalid in all public buildings, housing, transportation, and recreational and eating facilities. When Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas challenged the Court’s authority to enforce its Brown mandates, Warren rallied all of the justices to affix their names to the opinion in Cooper v. Aaron[case]Cooper v. Aaron[Cooper v. Aaron] (1958), which affirmed the supremacy of the Court’s interpretation of the constitution.

Fair Representation

Warren called Baker v. Carr[case]Baker v. Carr[Baker v. Carr](1962) the most vital decision during his tenure on the Court and the apportionment revolution that followed the most important achievement of the Warren Court. In Colegrove v. Green[case]Colegrove v. Green[Colegrove v. Green] (1946), the Court had refused to rule on legislative apportionment, which Justice Felix Frankfurter declared was a political question to be decided by elected representatives and therefore not justiciable. In 1961 when urban voters in Tennessee challenged the apportionment of seats in the state legislature as contrary to equal protection, however, the Warren Court, in Baker, entered what Frankfurter had termed the political thicket. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., writing for the majority, held that such cases were indeed justiciable under the Fourteenth Amendment.

In a series of cases that followed, the Court changed the character of U.S. politics by requiring that all citizens be represented equally in state legislatures and in Congress. The judiciary put an end to traditional malapportionment reflecting rural bias because there was no other feasible way to correct the constitutional command of voting equality. In Wesberry v. Sanders[case]Wesberry v. Sanders[Wesberry v. Sanders] (1964), the Court ruled that congressional apportionment schemes should be based on the criterion of one person, one vote. In Reynolds v. Sims[case]Reynolds v. Sims[Reynolds v. Sims] (1964), which required representation based on population in both branches of a state legislature, Warren maintained that it was unconstitutional to overweight the value of some voters and underweight the value of others.

Due Process Revolution

Until the 1960’s, the Court had been hesitant to incorporate Bill of Rights protections to apply to the states through the due processDue process, substantive clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.Incorporation doctrine Beginning with Mapp v. Ohio[case]Mapp v. Ohio[Mapp v. Ohio] (1961), however, the Warren Court selectively incorporated most of the protections afforded the accused before the bar of justice. The Mapp decision held that the exclusionary rule that bars evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures applies in state as well as federal cases.

Defendants’ rightsFifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination were incorporated in Malloy v. Hogan[case]Malloy v. Hogan[Malloy v. Hogan] (1964) and against double jeopardy in Benton v. Maryland[case]Benton v. Maryland[Benton v. Maryland] (1969). The Warren Court incorporated most of the provisions of the Sixth Amendment, including the right to counsel in felony prosecutions in Gideon v. Wainwright[case]Gideon v. Wainwright[Gideon v. Wainwright] (1963); confrontation clause protections in Pointer v. Texas[case]Pointer v. Texas[Pointer v. Texas] (1965); the right to a speedy trial in Klopfer v. North Carolina[case]Klopfer v. North Carolina[Klopfer v. North Carolina] (1967) by an impartial jury in Parker v. Gladden[case]Parker v. Gladden[Parker v. Gladden] (1966) with compulsory processes for obtaining witnesses in Washington v. Texas[case]Washington v. Texas[Washington v. Texas] (1968); and the right to a trial by jury in criminal cases in Duncan v. Louisiana[case]Duncan v. Louisiana[Duncan v. Louisiana] (1968). The Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment was applied to the states in Robinson v. California[case]Robinson v. California[Robinson v. California] (1962).

In a series of decisions, the Warren Court restrained the process of state law enforcement from investigation through arrest and trial. Warren wrote for the Court in Miranda v. Arizona[case]Miranda v. Arizona[Miranda v. Arizona] (1966), setting up clear rules that the police would have to follow during interrogations and declaring that any statements elicited in violation of these procedures would be inadmissible. Although the Miranda decision was criticized for restricting the efforts of law enforcement officials, Miranda warnings, with their cluster of constitutional rights for those accused of crimes, became a part of police routines.

Other Rights

The Warren Court handed down several landmark First AmendmentFirst Amendment decisions. The ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan[case]New York Times Co. v. Sullivan[New York Times Co. v. Sullivan] (1964) established the actual malice test for libel suits by public officials and protected the rights of citizens to criticize official conduct of government officials. The Warren Court made the United States much less puritanical by its rulings on obscenity. In Roth v. United States[case]Roth v. United States[Roth v. United States] (1957), the Court defined obscenity and empowered judges to see that the censorious did not go beyond prescribed parameters. In National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button[case]National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button[National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button] (1963), the Court found that the First and Fourteenth Amendments protect the right of association. In decisions made during the McCarthy Red Scare era, however, the Court had a mixed record of protecting free speech and association rights of communists or those accused of associating with communists. The Court’s interpretation of the Smith Act (1940) in Yates v. United States[case]Yates v. United States[Yates v. United States] (1957) and Scales v. United States[case]Scales v. United States[Scales v. United States] (1961) severely restricted its usefulness in limiting communist activities.

Religion, establishment ofGovernment-sponsored prayers in public schools were found to be inconsistent with the establishment clause in Engel v. Vitale[case]Engel v. Vitale[Engel v. Vitale] (1962), as were Bible readings and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in classes in Abington School District v. Schempp[case]Abington School District v. Schempp[Abington School District v. Schempp] (1963). In both cases, the Court concluded that the challenged practices served sacred rather than secular purposes. Engel and Schempp initiated a continuing and volatile debate on school prayer.

Warren joined in the majority opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut [case]Griswold v. Connecticut[Griswold v. Connecticut](1965), which proclaimed a general right to privacy that the Court would later extend to apply to the questions of abortion and gender discrimination. In privacy, as in the areas of other fundamental rights, the Warren Court’s legacy influences the daily and public lives of Americans.

Leadership and Philosophy

Chief Justice Warren was a notable leader. An experienced administrator, he was accustomed to chairing meetings, managing agendas, and assigning tasks to others. Warren was particularly adept at conducting the conference. He came prepared with a knowledge of each case and forthrightly stated the facts and led discussion. Warren articulated and pressed on others the convictions on which he believed a majority decision should rest. The force generated by Warren’s convictions about what was fair or equitable altered the meaning of technical debates on the Court. What counted in decision making was the conviction that a result was right. Warren used his political skills to induce the justices to follow his lead, and he personally was a guiding force in the landmark decisions during his tenure.

Warren did not have an overriding ideology or philosophy that directed his jurisprudence. He was a pragmatist who used the law to reach the result he favored in a given case. The values to which Warren adhered were traditional American ones such as family, morality, fairness, and equity. His concept of law applied equally to all parts of society: all races, citizens, different economic groups, prosecutors, and defendants. Warren’s concern for equality was reflected in his racial discrimination, malapportionment, and criminal justice decisions. His dominant consideration was seeing that the right side prevailed in a given case. The rightness of a side was determined by his conception of social good. Therefore, Warren could be called a realist for whom neither rules nor logic produced court decisions. For this result-oriented justice, the outcome of a case mattered more than the reasoning behind the decision.

The chief justice joined Hugo L. Black and William O. Douglas in an activist approach to the role of the Court. He followed the idea of judicial restraint in economic areas, but he believed that the Bill of Rights required more active enforcement in civil liberties cases. For Warren, it was the duty of the Court to rectify individual instances of injustice, particularly when the victims suffered from racial, economic, or similar disadvantages. Warren attempted to ensure fairness and equity in all cases where they had not been secured by other government processes. If a constitutional requirement remained unenforced because of government’s failure to compel obedience to it, the Court had to act. The Court had to step in because the political branches had not acted to support certain constitutional rights and the government could not or would not act to correct the situation.

For Warren, principle was more compelling than precedent. He was not afraid of change to enable public law to cope with rapid societal transformations. Conservative critics opposed Warren’s judicial activism and his broad interpretation of the Bill of Rights. Other critics faulted his lack of scholarship or judicial craftsmanship. However, under the leadership of “Super Chief,” as Justice Brennan fondly dubbed Warren, the Court brought the law more nearly in accord with the aspirations of the majority of the nation.

Further Reading
  • Earl Warren is well served with fine studies, such as Melvin I. Urofsky’s The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001), Michal R. Belknap’s The Supreme Court Under Earl Warren, 1953-1969 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005), Christine L. Compston’s Earl Warren: Justice for All (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Ed Cray’s Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997) is a highly readable account of the life of the man of contradictions who “grew to meet the demands of each new job.” A professor of journalism, Cray’s work is informative and full of insights about Warren, but his analyses of cases are for the general reader. More satisfying in its legal analysis is Bernard Schwartz’s Super Chief: Earl Warren and His Supreme Court: A Judicial Biography (New York: New York University Press, 1983) that begins with Warren’s arrival at the Court and reveals the internal dynamics of the Court’s handling of important cases and events. The most scholarly biography is by G. Edward White, who clerked for Warren in his retirement. White’s Earl Warren, A Public Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982) portrays the chief justice in a series of episodes and elements of his life. Earl Warren: The Judge Who Changed America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1979) by Jack H. Pollack describes Warren’s career but does not analyze his jurisprudence. Warren had almost completed a first draft of his memoirs when he died. The Memoirs of Earl Warren (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977) was published posthumously and contains comments on some events and cases, including Brown. John D. Weaver’s Warren: The Man, the Court, the Era (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967) is well documented, but slightly less than half its length is devoted to Warren’s judicial service. A less well-documented work is Leo Katcher’s Earl Warren: A Political Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), which was published before Warren’s retirement from the Court and stresses his pre-Court years in California.

Baker v. Carr

Brown v. Board of Education

Chief justice


Due process, procedural

Due process, substantive

Equal protection clause

Fundamental rights

Incorporation doctrine

Judicial activism


Obscenity and pornography

Privacy, right to

Representation, fairness of

Categories: History