Earl Warren was an American jurist and politician, who served as the 30th Governor of California (1943–1953) and later the 14th Chief Justice of the United States (1953–1969).
Earl Warren was born in Los Angeles, California, on March 19, 1891, the son of Methias Warren and Chrystal Warren, both of whom had immigrated to tire United States when they were children. Methias or “Matt” Warren worked for a railroad, earning so little for his toil at first that he later joked with his son drat when Earl was born, Matt was too poor to give him a middle name. But by dint of hard work and saving, Earl’s father eventually bought a number of properties whose rents gradually became the family’s chief livelihood.
Earl, meanwhile, grew up in Bakersfield, California, graduating from Kern County High School in 1908. With money he had saved from a steady career of odd jobs and with the financial support of his family, he enrolled that fall in the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his B.A. in 1912 and his law degree from Boalt Hall two years later. His law school career was without distinction.
After graduation, Warren spent an unhappy year working in the legal department of Associated Oil in San Francisco and 18 months clerking for the Oakland firm of Robinson and Robinson. Then, as he was on the verge of establishing his own practice with some friends, the United States entered World War I, and Warren entered the army. He arrived as a private and left, one month after the war was over and without serving overseas, as a first lieutenant.
After Warren returned to civilian life, he worked briefly for the California Assembly and then took a position as a deputy city' attorney in Oakland. In 1920 he undertook work as a deputy district attorney for Alameda County. Five years later, when tire district attorney advanced to a more prestigious political office, Warren was chosen to take his place. In 1925 he also married Nina Palmquist Meyers, a widow with a young son, after a two-year engagement. Warren adopted Nina’s son, and over the following years the couple had five more children together. As district attorney, Warren was re-elected in 1926,1930, and 1934, steadily establishing through these years a reputation as an incorruptible foe of political corruption.
In 1938 Earl Warren, then one of the best- known district attorneys in the country, ran for attorney general of California, winning the general election after he had gained the nominations of tire Republicans, the Democrats, and tlie Progressives. This victory came on the heels of learning that his father, who had become a miserly and disagreeable landlord in his later years, had been beaten to death with a lead pipe at home. The murder was never solved.
The most memorable aspect of Warren’s four-year tenure as attorney general of California was his vigorous support of the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast in camps, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In later years Warren came to deeply regret his participation in this affair. At the time, though, he w'as convinced that the military had authority during war “to tell me to get back 200 miles if it w'ants to do it, and as a good American citizen I have no right to complain. . . . Now',” he concluded, “if a good American citizen cannot complain, I don’t see why the Japanese should complain.”
Warren used his political experience as attorney general of California to launch a success fill campaign in 1942 for governor of the state and he proved as popular in this office as he had been as state attorney general. He won réélection in 1946 and again in 1950, in the later election defeating James Roosevelt, son of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Earl Warren was a progressive Republican, and his political success in California seemed to portend success on the national stage as well. He ran, in fact, as vice president with 1 liornas E. Dewey on the Republican ticket in 1948 and was a serious contender for the Republican nomination for president in 1952. But Dwight Eisenhower's capture of the Republican nomination and his election as president that year laid the ground for Earl Warren’s ascension to the national stage in a different way than he had, perhaps, expected. Eiscnhow'cr eventually informed Warren that he planned to appoint the California governor to
the Supreme Court as soon as there was a vacancy. The vacancy came sooner than expected when Chief Justice Fred Vinson died suddenly in September 1953. President Eisenhower gave Warren an interim appointment as chief justice on October 2, 1953, and then, when Congress reconvened, nominated him permanendy for the position. The Senate confirmed the appointment on March 1, 1954, and the next day Earl Warren was sworn in as the Fourteenth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The most famous case of Warren’s career was already pending before the Court when he began his interim appointment as chief justice in October 1953. Brown v. Board of Education, which challenged the constitutionality of public school segregation, had been argued before the Court the previous term, but the justices had not reached a decision. When initially considered by the Court while Fred Vinson was alive and still chief justice, it appeared that the Court—by a divided vote—would declare segregation in public schools unlawful. When Warren arrived on the Court, however, he made it a priority to achieve a unanimous agreement among the justices regarding the case, and, in a first display of the leadership that would characterize his tenure as chief justice, he succeeded.
On May 17, 1954, two months after being officially confirmed for the post he had occupied since the previous fall, Warren announced the opinion of a unanimous Court in Brown. The opinion was brief, to the point, and addressed more to the American public than to legal scholars. Earlier, in conference with the other justices about the case, Warren had argued that no justification could exist for segregation except a mistaken idea that blacks were inferior as a race. This idea he firmly rejected, and his opinion for the Court centered on the devastating effects on African-American children of being branded inferior by the pernicious system of segregation. “To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community, that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” The argument, which aimed straight at the human element—the basic issue of fairness—was one that would become commonplace on the Warren Court. “But was it fair?” would be the chief justice’s invariable question to lawyers trying to defend some result by piling precedent on precedent. Precedent, he believed, should not stand in the way of principle.
He was result-oriented to the core, better known, as it has been observed, for his decisions than for his opinions—that is, better known for the conclusions he reached than for the arguments he marshaled to explain those conclusions.
In the name of right, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) launched a social revolution in southern states that had practiced Jim Crow segregation for generations. And in the name of right, Warren led his Court to revolutionize the face of American law in other areas as well. Criminal defendants gained from the Warren Court extensive new protections in the criminal process: Mapp v. Ohio (1961) held that states could not use evidence illegally seized to prosecute criminal defendants; Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) required states to provide attorneys for defendants who could not afford them; Miranda v. Arizona (1966) established guidelines for police treatment of those arrested of crimes. Under Earl Warren’s leadership, the Court also upset the customary practices of many public school districts when it held in Engel v. Vitale (1963) that state-sponsored prayers in schools violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and a year later made the same finding with respect to Bible readings in Abington School District v. Schempp (1964). Warren’s court revolutionized voting law when it declared that the Constitution embodied the principle of “one person, one vote” in a series of voting rights cases beginning with Baker v. Carr (1962). And as if these landmark cases were not enough, the Warren court laid the foundation for the modern-day right to abortion when it recognized a fundamental right of privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (1963), which prohibited states from outlawing the use of contraceptives by married couples.
Warren married Swedish-born widow Nina Elisabeth Palmquist Meyers on October 4, 1925. They had six children. Mrs. Warren died in Washington, at age 100 on April 24, 1993. Warren is the father of Virginia Warren; she married veteran radio and television personality John Charles Daly, on December 22, 1960. Other children include James (adopted son from Ms. Meyers' first marriage), Earl Jr., Dorothy, Nina and Robert.