Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Earl Warren, Chair of the Warren Commission
Studio portrait of American politician Earl Warren (1891 - 1974). Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and head of the Warren Commission. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Earl Warren was born on March 19, 1891, in Los Angeles, California to immigrant parents who moved the family to Bakersfield, California in 1894 where Warren would grow up.  Warren’s father worked in the railroad industry, and Warren would spend his summer working in railroading.  Warren attended the University of California, Berkeley (Cal) for his undergraduate degree, a B.A. in political science in 1912, and his J.D.

in 1914 from the Berkeley School of Law.

In 1914, Warren was admitted to the California bar. He took his first legal job working for Associated Oil Company in San Francisco, where he stayed for one year before moving to the Oakland firm of Robinson & Robinson. He remained there until August 1917 when he enlisted in the United States Army to serve in World War I.

Life After World War I

First Lieutenant Warren was discharged from the Army in 1918, and he was hired as a Judicial Committee Clerk for the 1919 Session of the California State Assembly where he stayed until 1920.  From 1920 to 1925, Warren was Oakland’s Deputy City Attorney and in 1925, he was appointed as Alameda County’s District Attorney.

During his years as a prosecutor, Warren’s ideology concerning the criminal justice system and law enforcement techniques began taking shape.  Warren was re-elected to three four-year terms as Alameda’s D.A., having made a name for himself as a hard-nosed prosecutor who fought public corruption at all levels.

Attorney General of California

In 1938, Warren was elected to California’s Attorney General, and he assumed that office in January 1939.  On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Attorney General Warren, believing that civil defense was a main function of his office, became the leading proponent of moving Japanese away from the California coast.

This resulted in more than 120,000 Japanese being placed in internment camps without any due process rights or charges or any kind officially brought against them.  In 1942, Warren called the Japanese presence in California “the Achilles heel of the entire civilian defense effort.”  After serving one term, Warren was then elected as California’s 30th Governor taking office in January 1943.  

While at Cal, Warren became friends with Robert Gordon Sproul, who would remain close friends throughout his life.  In 1948, Sproul nominated Governor Warren for Vice President at the Republican National Convention to be Thomas E. Dewey’s running mate.  Harry S. Truman won the Presidential election.  Warren would remain as Governor until October 5, 1953 when President Dwight David Eisenhower appointed him to be the 14th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Career as Supreme Court Chief Justice

While Warren did not have any judicial experience, his years of actively practicing law and political accomplishments placed him in a unique position on the Court and also made him an efficient and influential leader.  Warren was also adept at forming majorities that supported his views on major Court opinions.

The Warren Court rendered a number of major decisions. These included: 

  • Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation policies in public schools unconstitutional,
  • Loving v. Virginia, which declared anti-miscegenation laws (laws that enforced and/or criminalized racial segregation in marriage and intimate relationships) unconstitutional,
  • Griswold v. Connecticut, which stated that the Constitution contains a general right to privacy,
  • Abington School District v. Schempp, which prohibited mandatory Bible readings in schools,
  • and Engel v. Vitale, which prohibited official prayer in schools.

Also, Warren used his experiences and ideological beliefs from his days as District Attorney to change the landscape in the arena. These cases included: 

  • Brady v. Maryland, which requires the government to provide exculpatory evidence to a defendant,
  • Miranda v. Arizona, which requires that a defendant being questioned by law enforcement must be informed about his rights,
  • Gideon v. Wainwright, which requires that legal counsel be provided to indigent defendants during Court proceedings,
  • Escobedo v. Illinois, which requires that legal counsel be provided to indigent defendants during interrogation by law enforcement,
  • Katz v. United States, which extended Fourth Amendment protection to all areas where a person has a "reasonable expectation of privacy,"
  • Terry v. Ohio, which allows law enforcement officer to stop and frisk a person if the police officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime and has a reasonable belief that the person "may be armed and presently dangerous." 

In addition to the number of major decisions that the Court released while he was Chief Justice, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to lead what became known as “The Warren Commission” which investigated and compiled a report about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In 1968, Warren tendered his resignation from the Court to President Eisenhower when it became apparent that Richard Milhous Nixon would become the next President.  Warren and Nixon had a mutually strong dislike for each other stemming from events that occurred at the 1952 Republican National Convention.  Eisenhower attempted to name his replacement but was unable to have the Senate confirm the nomination.  Warren ended up retiring in 1969 while Nixon was President and passed away in Washington, D.C., on July 9, 1974.