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Earl Warren
Judicial Revolution

Earl Warren was the 14th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1953-1969. Warren was Governor of California prior to becoming a Supreme Court Justice. He helped Eisenhower's republican nomination in 1952 and was promised an appointment to the next available Supreme Court vacancy by Eisenhower. After Eisenhower won the presidential election the next opening occurred after Fred Vinson’s unexpected death. President Eisenhower wanted to go back on his word because he didn’t expect the next opening to be the Chief Justice. But “Warren gave the president an ultimatum: appoint him to the first vacancy, as promised, or he would resign as governor and stomp the nation, denouncing the president as a liar. The following month, Ike nominated Warren to the nation's highest judicial office.” (Grace, 2002, para.10) This decision led to an era of judicial revolution under the leadership of Warren.

Prior to 1953, during Fred Vinson’s short stint as Chief Justice, the Court was mostly interested in upholding anti-communist laws and internal security. Vinson was “not remembered for an outstanding career on the Supreme Court.” (Columbia, 2003) The United States was ready and in need of an effective leader for the Court. This is precisely what happened when Earl Warren took office after Vinson’s death. For the next 16 years the Warren Court handed down some very important decisions on issues such as civil rights, freedoms of privacy, police abuses, and legislative reapportionment. Vinson was in favor of the separate but equal notion that was precedent after Plessy v. Ferguson and intended on keeping it that way. In Warren’s first major case he was able to sway votes to gain a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which was in his first year on the bench.

In Warren’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education he wrote, “…we cannot turn the clock back to 1868, when the Amendment was adopted, or even to 1896, when Plessy v. Ferguson was written. We must consider public education in the light of its full development and its present place in American life throughout the Nation. Only in this way can it be determined if segregation in public schools deprives these plaintiffs of the equal protection of the laws.” (Warren, Brown v. Board, 1954) This statement shows a progressive and activist approach to the way Warren formed his opinion. He showed the willingness to reverse the precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson, which had lasted nearly sixty years. The time that had passed since Plessy v. Ferguson was reason enough, to Warren, to believe change might be necessary. He assigned himself to write the opinion on this controversial case and struck down the mandate that public schools be segregated. He was not afraid to go against an amendment and lend a helping hand to a problem that needed to be solved. Equal protection means equal protection. Separate but equal means “physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal,” but “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” (Warren, Brown v. Board, 1954) Warren believed segregation of whites and blacks was detrimental to blacks, because by nature the feeling of being inferior to another race can affect motivation. Hence segregation “has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system." (Warren, Brown v. Board, 1954) This unanimous decision of the Supreme Court in 1954 led to a stream of decisions that broadened civil rights.

Warren became known as a liberal justice very quickly. He led a solid liberal majority of associate justices and they became known as an activist court. Warren’s philosophies while on the bench were quite different than those during his political career. He was a republican, and as an attorney general he once blocked a nominee, he thought was too liberal, to a state Supreme Court. As Governor of California he supported sending Japanese-Americans to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In his autobiography Warren said, “I have since deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it, because it was not in keeping with our American concept of freedom and the rights of citizens. Whenever I thought of the innocent little children who were torn from home, school friends and congenial surroundings, I was conscience-stricken.” (Grace, 2002, para. 5) There was much regret by the people involved in sending Japanese-Americans to the internment camps. Experiencing first hand and witnessing the aftermath of that ruling could have led to the major transformation of his philosophies from WWII until the time he became Chief Justice. With staunch opposition to his liberal opinions from the right, Warren did not return to his views but kept progressing forward.

In 1964 Warren wrote the opinion of the Reynolds v. Sims case. This case became known as the “one man, one vote” principle and required state legislative reapportionment. Before the case there were huge differences in representation size per delegate. “In California, the Los Angeles senate district included more than six million people; in a more sparsely populated part of the state, one senate district had only 14,000 persons. (Cortner, 1972) In Vermont the largest district had a population of 33,000, and the smallest had 238. They had very large differences in voters, but each district had the same representation on capital hill. In the opinion of Reynolds v. Sims, Warren wrote, “Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests… The weight of a citizen's vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives.” (Warren, 1964, Reynolds v. Sims) This is another solid reference to Warren’s helping hand in shaping equal protection based on the Constitutional requirement of the 14th amendment. “…The Equal Protection Clause requires that the seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must be apportioned on a population basis.” (Warren, 1964, Reynolds v. Sims) The individual right to vote cannot be considered equal until it bares equal value from each person.

Like the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the decision in Reynolds v. Sims had a great impact at both social and political levels. Warren realized legislatures that truly represented the people would benefit everyone, and not just those in small or rural areas. “Legislatures more representative of the people would radically change funding formulas for schools, roads and social services.” (Cortner, 1972) Small rural communities basically ran the legislatures in and prior to 1964. They rarely redistricted even after a new census came out. Warren’s Court gave every person a vote on an equal basis no matter where they lived. It shifted the power from the few in rural areas to a true majority of voters. The Court’s decision was nearly unanimous with an eight to one vote.

Warren’s Court was nowhere near unanimous in the Miranda v. Arizona case. In fact, the case was decided by the slightest margin of five to four. Warren followed in his own footsteps and delivered the opinion of yet another controversial case. Once again Warren helped pave the road for the requirements of due process. He found that in order to follow the laws of the Constitution and the Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate oneself “an individual held for interrogation must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation.” (Warren, 1966, Miranda v. Arizona) Furthermore he decided that “prior to any questioning, the person must be warned that he has a right to remain silent, that any statement he does make may be used as evidence against him.”

The Miranda doctrine soon thereafter became the famous Miranda rights. Warren in this instance was being an activist. The policy made in this case was very specific, in that it called for police to strictly follow certain guidelines prior to interrogating an individual. He spelled out the privileges of individuals that never before were enforced by law. He did adhere to the strict interpretation of the Constitution, but instead offered his own opinion on what the Fifth Amendment meant. Informing an individual of his or her rights before interrogation was, to him, a sure way they’re privilege of self-incrimination would not be abandoned. Prior to that decision the rights of many were certainly jeopardized by police. Warren contributed to protect every day people from being victims of injustices by insuring due process under the Constitution.

Yet another controversial case the Warren Court decided was the Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago in 1961. This one however was not one that Warren delivered an opinion on, but dissented. It was a five to four decision that rested on the forever-argued interpretation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The law in Chicago required all motion pictures be submitted to a censor before they were exhibited publicly. They were forbidden from public exhibition if they did not meet certain standards. The Times Film Corp. refused to submit their film to a censor and was then denied a permit to exhibit the movie. The court found that since the Times Film Corp. was not arguing about the validity of the standards of the censor, but only challenging the sensor itself, this was an invalid argument. Warren proclaimed, “Let it be completely clear what the Court's decision does. It gives official license to the censor, approving a grant of power to city officials to prevent the showing of any moving picture these officials deem unworthy of a license. It thus gives formal sanction to censorship in its purest and most far-reaching form.” (Warren, 1961, Times Film Corp. v. Chicago) He seemed to have true concern for a violation of ones First and Fourteenth Amendment right. By allowing cities to pick and choose which movies they felt did or did not meet their standards was censorship in its purest form. The content of a movie, for example child pornography, can be against the law, and therefore could not receive a permit. But never before had a movie been denied strictly because it was uncensored. Warren saw the fledgling mistake the court was about to make. He and four other justices dissented. In the next five years the Court would hear many similar cases, and by 1965 the Warren Court reversed their decisions on censorship, finding states cannot censor every film under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

Many people, during the tenure of Earl Warren, viewed the Court as being so radically liberal that signs to “Impeach Earl Warren” showed up everywhere. There are those that believe the policies and doctrines the Warren Court made were not theirs to make. The judicial revolution that took place during those fifteen years, to this day, gets people fired up for a counter-revolution. The progressiveness of the Warren court seems to fuel anger in our partisan society. Some still view the court’s precedents and doctrines as unconstitutional and believe they will one day be over-ruled. There are people, today in 2003, fifty years after Warren’s Court, that believe the “separate but equal doctrine” of race relations laid down in 1896 is all right as long as equal facilities are given to each race. There are those that believe the “restraintist” approach to judicial ruling will one day dismantle what Warren and the Supreme Court Justices of 1953-1969 laid down.

Whether Court justices are from the left or from the right, the evolution of its doctrines seems to be in constant change. Republican Earl Warren came to his senses, used some good reasoning, and shifted over to the left after becoming Chief Justice which paved the way for many civil rights to be granted to the people. Earl Warren helped move the evolution of the Court doctrines along a bit faster than others would have in his position. He used his own opinions, his morals, and his values and his own interpretations of the Constitution when offering opinions of the court. Some say this is not what the framer’s intended the Court Justices to do. However by doing this, Warren helped motivate America to become more like what the framer’s intended in terms of privacy and civil rights Americans hold priceless. The Warren Judicial Revolution made our country better than it was before his tenure.


Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Brown Et Al. v. Board of Education of Topeka Et Al., 349 U.S. 294 (1955)

Cortner, R. C. (1972). The Apportionment Cases. W. W. Norton & Company

Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia (1994, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003). Vinson,
Frederick Moore. Retrieved November 30, 2003 from

Grace, R. M. (2002). Great Norwegians: Earl Warren. Retrieved November 30, 2003
Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966)

Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964)

Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago Et Al., 365 U.S. 43 (1961)


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