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Supreme Court Justices

Earl Warren (1891-1974)

Earl Warren was born on March 19, 1891 in Los Angeles, California, the son of Matt and Christine ("Chrystal") (Hernlund) Warren. Warren's father was a longtime employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, who lost his job with the railroad for a time after joining the failed Pullman Strike of 1894 (led by Eugene V. Debs). Warren's father was murdered (the killer was never found) in 1938.

Warren attended the University of California (now UC-Berkeley), graduating in 1912. He then attended the law school attached to the University of California, known as Boalt Hall, graduating in 1914. He then worked for a year as a lawyer as counsel to an oil company. Warren then spent a couple of years in private practice. When the United States entered World War I in spring 1917, Warren volunteered to join the Army as an officer. Although he was twice rejected by the Army, he eventually became an officer after joining the Army as a voluntary draftee (something of an oxymoron). He remained in the United States through the duration of the War. Warren returned to California to serve as counsel to the state legislature. After a short stop with the Oakland city attorney's office, Warren joined the Alameda County District Attorney's staff, as a deputy district attorney. In 1925, Warren was appointed to fill the remainder of the term of the departed district attorney. He won election as District Attorney in 1926, 1930 and 1934. In 1938, Warren won election as Attorney General of California. In 1942, Warren was elected Governor of California. He remained Governor until 1953, when he was appointed to the Supreme Court. He ran as the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate in 1948 (when Dewey lost to Truman), and in 1952, he helped secure Eisenhower's nomination for President by controlling the California delegation at the Republican convention that year.

Shortly after announcing he would step down from the governorship, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died. Eisenhower had promised Warren the first open seat on the Court, and Warren considered that promise to include any opening, including the Chief Justice's seat. At the end of September 1953, with Congress no longer in session, Warren was given a recess appointment to the Court. (He was confirmed by the Senate on March 1, 1954.)

Warren's first major test, one that would define his work on the Court, was Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955). The Court had heard arguments in Brown in December 1952. It was badly divided on whether segregation of public school students by race was constitutional. The Court ordered re-argument in June 1953 on several questions, including whether the 14th Amendment was adopted with the intention of permitting racial segregation in public schools. Justice Frankfurter's clerk, Alexander Bickel (later a noted law professor at Yale), spent his summer at the Harvard Law School library working on finding answers to these questions. The answers he found were equivocal at best, and some concluded that some framers of the 14th amendment also found permissible segregated public schooling. Chief Justice Vinson was believed to be in favor of keeping the Court's "separate but equal" precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Warren believed legalized segregation was impermissible, and after the re-argument of the case in December 1953, went about attempting to forge a unanimous decision in Brown. Warren spent a great deal of time through the first several months of 1954 seeking unanimity. Warren assigned the opinion in Brown to himself. He managed to convince the remaining dissenter, Stanley Reed, to join the Court's opinion, which merely held Plessy inapplicable in the field of public education. The Court, pursuant to Warren's suggestion, delayed for a year the order implementing its decision. That would come in Brown II, issued on May 31, 1955 (implementing desegregation "with all deliberate speed.").

The Warren Court that is remembered today is the 1963-69 Court, in which a solid bloc of five liberals created the revolution in constitutional criminal procedure, and which aided the civil rights movement as much as possible. Earl Warren became well known as a "liberal" Supreme Court justice, so much so that national politics revolved in part on one's position concerning the Court. That is, one's views of the Warren Court reflect in part one's views of an "activist" judiciary.  Warren was a decisive, amiable and tough-minded leader of a fractious group, and he imprinted his political and legal views on nearly all of the Court's decisions in this six year period. In the summer of 1968, Warren announced his retirement upon the appointment of his successor. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a lame duck, nominated Associate Justice Abe Fortas to succeed Warren. He then nominated a Texan, Homer Thornberry, to succeed Fortas. This failed in spectacular fashion. (For more details, see the biography of Fortas.) The decisions of the Warren Court became a part of the 1968 presidential election, won by Richard Nixon, and led to calls, still heard more nearly forty years later, for judges to engage in judicial "restraint."

Warren married Nina Palmquist Meyers, a widow, in 1925. They were the parents of six children, including her child by her first husband. Warren died on July 9, 1974, a month before his long-time California adversary, Richard Nixon, was forced to resign the presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal. 

Further reading: Earl Warren, The Memoirs of Earl Warren (1977); G. Edward White, Earl Warren: A Public Life (1982); Bernard Schwartz, Super Chief: Earl Warren and His Supreme Court-A Judicial Biography (1983); Ed Cray, Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren (1997); Jim Newton, Justice for All: Earl Warren and the World He Made (2006).