The Supreme Court

Warren Court

The Supreme Court shifted away from its focus on property rights to personal rights when Chief Justice Earl Warren took over the court in 1953. Prior to the Warren Court a majority of the cases centered around building a foundation for property law.

That all changed with the Warren court's first landmark case—Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which opened the battle for school desegregation. After working hard to get a unanimous ruling in that case, Warren continued to work his magic to lead the court in a series of cases that guaranteed numerous personal rights, which primarily focused on the Bill of Rights.

After introducing you to Earl Warren and the politics of the Warren Court, I'll take a brief look at the critical cases that helped make this court the second most extraordinary court in U.S. history—second only to the Marshall Court.

From Politician to Chief Justice

Earl Warren was not known for legal scholarship, but instead for his ability to manage the court and sway other justices to his way of thinking. His appointment to the court came as a payback for helping President Dwight D. Eisenhower secure the nomination of the Republican Party by throwing the California delegation's votes to Eisenhower at a critical time during the Republican convention. At the time, Warren was governor of California.

Before becoming governor, Warren served as California's attorney general. He advocated, along with many other California politicians, the forced evacuation of people of Japanese decent into internment camps just after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, which drew the United States into World War II. While chief justice he led the battle for personal rights, which makes this earlier support seem contradictory to his reputation as a vanguard in safeguarding the Bill of Rights and our personal freedoms.

Chief Justice Earl Warren's official portrait painted by C. J. Fox.

Chief Justice Earl Warren's official portrait painted by C. J. Fox.(Photograph by Vic Boswell from the Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Court Connotations

Internment camps were set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942 when he signed an executive order to establish the War Relocation Authority, which had the responsibility to remove Japanese Americans from their homes and place them in camps. These camps housed more than 110,000 Japanese Americans who lived along the Pacific Coast. Some of these Japanese Americans had lived in the country since the early 1900s and some were second-generation Japanese born in America.

Warren held two law degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and briefly practiced law before joining the Army to serve in World War I. After the war he spent 20 years in government service starting as a deputy district attorney and moving up to the lead position of attorney general in 1939. Warren was first elected California governor in 1943 on the Republican ticket and was reelected two more times on both the Republican and Democratic tickets. Safe to say he was a very popular California politician.

Eisenhower appointed Warren to the Supreme Court on September 30, 1953, which was just five days before the Court's term began. He replaced Chief Justice Frederick Vinson, who died on September 8, 1953. I'll talk more about Vinson in Ebbs and Flows of Court Leadership. Warren didn't have formal confirmation hearings at that time because the Senate was in recess. His formal confirmation wasn't until March 1954.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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