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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Earl Warren biography

Landmark Case Biography: Earl Warren (1891–1974)

Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-41653

Earl Warren was Chief Justice during one of the most turbulent times in our nation's history. During his tenure, the Court dealt with controversial cases on civil rights and civil liberties and the very nature of the political system.

Warren was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in Bakersfield, California where his father worked as a railroad car repairman. Bakersfield was a rough and tumble frontier town where Warren recalled seeing "crime and vice of all kinds countenanced by a corrupt government." He worked on the railroad himself in the summer, which left him with knowledge about working people and their problems, as well as with the anti-Asian racism then rampant on the West Coast.

Warren attended the University of California at Berkeley and its law school. After serving a brief stint in the army during World War I, he worked for the Alameda County district attorney's office for eighteen years. During that time he proved to be a tough prosecutor, but he was also sensitive to the rights of the accused and personally fought to secure a public defender for people who could not afford one. A 1931 survey concluded that Earl Warren was the best district attorney in the United States.

From 1938 to 1942, Earl Warren was attorney general of California and was then elected governor. Warren is remembered mostly for his role in demanding the evacuation of Japanese from the West Coast. Though the action seemed inconsistent with his future decisions, Warren maintained during his lifetime that it seemed like the right action at the time. In his memoirs, however, he acknowledged error.

Warren served three terms as governor of California and played a key role in Dwight Eisenhower's nomination for the presidency in 1952. Eisenhower rewarded Warren with the Chief Justice position in 1953. Warren took over a court that was deeply divided between those justices who advocated a more active role for the court and those who supported judicial restraint. He proved skillful at "massing the court" and securing consensus as is evidenced by the unanimous decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case, one of the first cases that he had to deal with as Chief Justice.

The Brown case was the first in a long string of judgments that marked a more active role for the Supreme Court of the United States in American life. The Warren Court took on the defense of individual rights as no court before it. Warren considered this a proper role for the courts; he never saw the role of the judiciary as passive, or somehow inferior to the other two branches of government.

Warren's opinion in Brown has been criticized for its lack of constitutional analysis. In Brown the key finding does not appeal to precedent or to the history of the Fourteenth Amendment. Rather there is an emphasis on common sense, justice, and fairness that can be seen in Warren's reliance on social science and psychological research. Warren was not antigovernment, but he believed that the Constitution prohibited the government from acting unfairly against the individual. In taking this position, he carved out a powerful position for the Court as a protector of civil rights and civil liberties.

Read letters written to Chief Justice Warren by other justices remarking on his Brown v. Board of Education decision.

  1. What do the letters reveal about Justice Warren, his decision in the Brown case, and his relationship with the other justices?
  2. Why was a unanimous decision in the Brown case so important?

Cray, Ed. Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

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