As the fourteenth Chief Justice of the United States, Earl Warren presided over a Supreme Court that handed down landmark rulings in the areas of race relations, school prayer, political representation, and criminal justice. Warren was born to Scandinavian immigrants in Los Angeles, California, on March 19, 1891. He was raised in Bakersfield, where his father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, and he himself worked a variety of summer jobs with the railroad. He put himself through school, earning both his undergraduate and law degrees at the University of California at Berkeley.
Warren began his political career as the district attorney of Alameda County, California. He went on to serve as California’s attorney general, and in 1942 he was elected governor. During his state service, Warren supported the evacuation of persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast during World War II. Throughout the remainder of his political career, Warren publicly defended his action, which stands in stark contrast to his role as one of the staunchest civil libertarians ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Warren sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1948 and 1952. In 1948 he was chosen as Thomas Dewey’s running mate, but the Dewey—Warren ticket was defeated. In 1952, the Republican nomination, and the presidency, went to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Following the unexpected death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson in the summer of 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Warren to fill the vacancy.
On the Supreme Court’s docket for the 1953 term was Brown v. Board of Education, a group of cases challenging the racial segregation of public primary and secondary schools. At the time, one-third of the states and the District of Columbia maintained segregated schools by law, often with vast disparities in school funding and facilities for black and white students. The Warren Court handed down a unanimous ruling in the Brown cases in May 1954, declaring that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." A year later, in Brown II, the Court ordered that public schools be desegregated "with all deliberate speed." In subsequent decisions, the Warren Court struck down racial segregation in public buildings, transportation, housing, and recreational facilities. The Brown decisions were not the only Warren Court rulings that impacted public education. In Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the Court ruled that state-sponsored prayer and Bible reading in public schools were establishments of religion in violation of the Constitution.
During the 1960s the Warren Court instituted a constitutional revolution in criminal justice. In a series of decisions, the Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to apply many of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights—the protections against self-incrimination and double jeopardy, the right to counsel, the right to a jury trial and to confront witnesses—to the states. Some of these protections were encapsulated in what became known as the Miranda warnings. According to the Court’s decision in Miranda v. Arizona, criminal suspects who are in custody must be informed of their constitutional rights, and they must waive those rights before any questioning may occur.
The Warren Court significantly altered the system of political representation in the United States as well. The first half of the twentieth century saw substantial population shifts from rural to urban areas, yet many state legislatures did not redraw representational districts to reflect these shifts. In a previous decision the Court had declined to address the apportionment issue, describing it as a "political thicket" that the Court should avoid. But in its 1962 ruling in Baker v. Carr, the Court rejected this reasoning, opening the door to a series of decisions establishing the "one person, one vote" principle for political representation and applying this principle at the congressional, state, and local levels. After leaving the Court, Warren described Baker v. Carr as the most important decision handed down during his tenure.
Warren resigned from the Court in 1969 and was replaced as Chief Justice by Warren E. Burger. He died on July 9, 1974, following a series of heart attacks, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.