When Earl Warren was sworn in as the 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on October 4, 1953, the United States was on the brink of transition. The civil rights movement had not officially begun, but members of marginalized groups were already mobilizing for racial and economic justice.
In the 1940s, the Armed Forces and Major League Baseball were desegregated, and civil rights activists began to challenge segregation in interstate travel and dining establishments. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which denied Chinese workers citizenship and immigration privileges, was repealed after it went into effect in 1882. And Fred Korematsu defended his civil liberties, defying federal orders ordering Americans of Japanese descent to settle in internment camps after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. . As men served in the military during World War II, women entered the workforce in greater numbers and wanted more job opportunities after it ended.
In this post-war environment, which laid the foundation for the massive social changes that would take place in the 1950s and 1960s, Warren began the first year of his 16-year tenure on the High Court. After serving as governor of California from 1943 to 1953 and previously attorney general of California and attorney for Alameda County, Warren replaced Chief Justice Fred Vinson, who died in September 1953.
In Warren, President Dwight D. Eisenhower saw a centrist Republican like himself with a professional background in law enforcement, to boot. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Warren leaned to the left with age, viewing the Constitution as a living document rather than a fixed document. With this in mind, the court in Warren has ruled on a number of landmark civil rights cases.
Warren leads the decision on Brown v. Board of Education
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WATCH VIDEO: Brown v. Board of Education
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that “separate but equal” schools based on race were unconstitutional. The decision overturned the precedent set in 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson, a case decided when Warren was only five years old. But when Brown first appeared in court in 1952, it was unclear how that would be decided. Warren’s arrival the following year changed that, according to Geoffrey R. Stone and David A. Strauss, co-authors of Democracy and Equality: The Enduring Constitutional Vision of the Warren Court. Both authors are eminent law professors at the University of Chicago.
“The judges had been divided on this issue the previous year and had not decided the case,” Stone said of Brown. “And when Warren became chief justice, he worked very hard to bring everyone together, ultimately resulting in a unanimous decision. It was one of the greatest, if not the greatest decision of the 20th century.
Strauss credits the unanimous decision in Brown to Warren’s political prowess. He called him one of the great politicians of his generation and a key player in the Republican Party. The GOP then, however, was not the same party it is today.
“Until the mid-1960s, the Republican Party was pretty much united in favor of civil rights,” says Strauss. “It was a liberal wing of the Republican Party that was really keen on pushing for civil rights, and then a more conservative wing that wasn’t. But the diehard segregationists were in the Democratic Party.
Changing times have also been factored into the Brown decision. Stone says the court had a better understanding of the consequences of racial segregation than it did during Plessy v. Ferguson. There was no doubt that segregation negatively affected the academic achievement of black Americans.
“They fully understood that … racial segregation led to very different education systems and that not having the opportunity to interact with other students from both sides was a terrible consequence for the country and reaffirmed a set of values that… were incompatible with equal protection. clause of the 14th Amendment,” Stone says.
Voting rights established in Reynolds v. sims
Before Warren became chief justice, the Supreme Court did not particularly protect the right to vote, but that changed during his tenure. In 1964 Reynolds vs Simsvoters in Jefferson County, Alabama objected to the way the state’s legislative districts were drawn.
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Alabama’s constitution stipulated that there was at least one elected official for each county and senatorial district. The districts, however, had been drawn with extremely unequal populations, allowing sparsely populated rural districts to dominate more populated and racially diverse urban districts. The court ruled 8 to 1 that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause required that legislative districts be drawn with an approximately equal number of voters.
The decision stemmed from the “one person, one vote” principle, according to Stone and Strauss. “States cannot set up their legislatures so that a minority of state voters can elect the majority of the state legislature,” Strauss said. “But it was a big problem in parts of the country where there were rural areas that controlled the state government, even though a large majority of the population lived in cities. The court in Warren put a stop to that.
The criminal justice system reformed under Warren Court
In the civil rights era, Warren Court also played an important role in the criminal justice system. Given Warren’s background in law enforcement, he realized that low-income people, disproportionately people of color, were vulnerable to unfair criminal justice practices.
In 1961 Mapp vs. Ohio, the court in Warren limited the evidence that could be used in the criminal prosecution. Police had long been able to carry out unconstitutional searches, arresting a black driver for no reason, for example, then searching the vehicle and using any contraband found to pursue the motorist.
“They could prosecute you for drug possession and didn’t have to show they had a legitimate justification to search you,” Stone says. In Map, the court ruled that if the police conduct an unconstitutional search, the evidence found is inadmissible in court. The move prompted authorities to comply with the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
“But before the Map decision, they were perfectly free to engage in unconstitutional searches and use the evidence they found, and there was no real remedy because usually poor defendants have no way to sue them for damages -interest,” Stone says. “And so the police had no reason to comply with the Fourth Amendment. So this was another example of the court interpreting the Constitution in a way that protected the rights of individuals who were engaged in the criminal justice system.
In the 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court handed down another important criminal justice decision. He ruled that states were required to provide counsel to defendants who could not afford to hire their own attorneys.
“It created a much better ability for individuals to be defended than just standing there alone not knowing any laws,” Stone said.
In 1966 Miranda v. Arizona, the court in Warren ruled that police must inform anyone arrested of their right to remain silent and their right to an attorney. The decision was a response to law enforcement taking advantage of the fact that people of color, low-income people and uneducated people who are arrested often don’t know their legal rights, Stone says.
Collectively, Warren’s court criminal court rulings used the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments to give more rights to the socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“Some of the criminal procedure decisions like Miranda [faced a] great wave of opposition,” says Strauss. “And now the more conservative judges are totally comfortable with Miranda. So these cases have gone from extremely controversial to not just things that no one wants to question, but things that in many cases everyone is proud of, like Brown. It is an aspect of [Warren’s] legacy.”
Interracial marriage protected in Loving v. Virginia
Prior to Warren’s retirement from the High Court in 1969, he led the court in deciding 1967 Love against Virginie. The judges ruled that the legislation banning interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment. During this time, most Americans opposed interracial marriage, but the court agreed that banning such marriages amounted to racial discrimination. So why did it take 13 years after the Brown desegregation case for the court to rule in favor of interracial marriage?
“Interracial marriage was the kind of emotional issue that all the racists kept bringing up,” Strauss says. They said, “’The Supreme Court wants to mix races. They want black men to marry your white girls. It was their speech, so the Supreme Court dodged the question for 13 years. And then, finally in 1967, he said, ‘Okay, that’s enough. We cannot ban interracial marriages.
When the judges decided Brown, they knew that the backlash against school desegregation would generate a huge backlash. They didn’t want to spark more outrage by greenlighting interracial marriage. By the late 1960s, delaying the decision was no longer an option.