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Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made

By Jim Newton, Riverhead/Penguin, 2006  

After his appointment as chief justice of the United States in 1953, Earl Warren emerged at the center of a national controversy that continues to rage. Warren helped trigger the civil rights movement and unabashedly championed civil liberties, but he also fueled an ongoing debate on the proper role of judges. Current attacks on “activist judges,” such as those in Massachusetts who ruled in favor of gay marriage in 2004, are a continuing critique of Earl Warren’s position as an unelected “legislator on the bench.”

Nominated by Dwight Eisenhower, who would later consider the move one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency, the new chief justice wasted no time in making his mark. In his first major decision— 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education— Warren successfully lobbied his new judicial colleagues to issue a unanimous decision that contravened six decades of judicial tolerance of state-sanctioned racial discrimination.

Los Angeles Times journalist Jim Newton has done a wonderful job describing Warren’s long career, and the majority of the book is devoted to his time on the bench in California before he became chief justice. This is by far the most valuable and trailblazing part of the biography. While Newton is not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar, he has a masterful understanding of the history of Warren-era California.

Earl Warren was born in Los Angeles in 1891, and grew up in Bakersfield. He first became interested in the law at the age of 12, says Newton, when he attended a sensational local murder trial. Warren’s father was a staunch railway union member who was fired for his union activities. Young Earl would become a Progressive Republican, though his political record in California was beset by ideological inconsistencies.

As assistant district attorney of Alameda County, Warren built his reputation by putting corrupt government officials and gamblers behind bars. In 1936 he successfully prosecuted four union members accused of murdering their boss, calling the murder conspiracy “communistic” and earning the enmity of California’s leftist unions. When prounion Democratic Governor Culbert Olson visited the convicted killers in prison and considered pardoning them because of alleged irregularities in their prosecution, an enraged Warren ran for governor against Olson and was elected to his first of three consecutive terms.

California’s economy boomed due to defense spending during World War II, allowing Warren to increase state spending for social services while cutting taxes. He was considered a bipartisan leader of rare common sense. Yet Warren infamously supported interning California’s Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Only in his posthumously published memoirs would the stubborn Warren express regret for his role in the whole episode.

Republican presidential standard-bearer Thomas Dewey selected Warren as his running mate in his unsuccessful 1948 campaign. Warren’s chances in the 1952 Republican presidential primaries disappeared when General Dwight Eisenhower became the instant frontrunner. California Senator Richard Nixon promised to support Warren’s candidacy, but secretly worked for Eisenhower and became the war hero’s running mate. Warren never forgave Nixon’s backstabbing, and the two remained enemies for life. Yet Warren and Eisenhower hit it off and despite loathing Nixon, Warren worked for the victorious Republican ticket. A grateful Eisenhower promised him the first open seat on the Supreme Court; when Chief Justice Fred Vinson died a year later, Earl Warren got the nod.

Warren’s brilliant political skills molded the majorities behind his judicial opinions. A court that had been fractious under Vinson became cohesive under Warren. Still, Warren did meet with opposition, most famously from Justice Felix Frankfurter, who preferred that judges defer to the legislature instead of trying to decide “political” issues like Brown, which began 15 years of judicial activism led by the hard-charging Warren.

In addition to supporting civil rights and the rights of the criminally accused, the Warren Court established a judicially created “right of privacy” that would become the legal foundation for Roe v. Wade. Critics accused Warren of usurping authority belonging to the states and chided him for handcuffing law enforcement with the Miranda decision, which guaranteed rights for those accused of a crime. Warren courted more controversy by heading the commission that investigated the assassination of President John Kennedy. When the commission reported that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone, conspiracy theorists howled their disagreement.

Earl Warren remains the most divisive judge in American history, hailed by liberals as a patron saint and demonized by conservatives as a black-robed dictator. Jim Newton’s exhaustively researched and elegantly written biography won’t settle the longstanding debate, but it shows that Warren was neither saint nor Satan, but a man who, over a long career, did his best to render justice as he saw it.


Originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here