The Warren Court: Its Impact and Importance

1962 Supreme Court Portrait
Formal portrait of members of the United States Supreme Court,Washington DC, 1962. Pictured are, front row, from left, Justice Tom C Clark, Justice Hugo L Black, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Justice William O Douglas, and Justice John M Harlan; back row, from left, Justice Byron R White, Justice William J Brennan Jr, Justice Potter Stewart, and Justice Arthur J Goldberg.

 PhotoQuest / Getty Images

The Warren Court was the period from October 5, 1953, to June 23, 1969, during which Earl Warren served as chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Along with the Marshall Court of Chief Justice John Marshall from 1801 to 1835, the Warren Court is remembered as one of the two most impactful periods in American constitutional law. Unlike any court before or since, the Warren Court dramatically expanded civil rights and civil liberties, as well as the powers of the judiciary and the federal government.

Key Takeaways: The Warren Court

  • The term Warren Court refers to the U.S. Supreme Court as led by Chief Justice Earl Warren from October 5, 1953, to June 23, 1969.
  • Today, the Warren Court is considered one of the two most important periods in the history of American constitutional law.
  • As Chief Justice, Warren applied his political abilities to guide the court to reaching often controversial decisions that dramatically expanded civil rights and liberties, as well as judicial power.
  • The Warren Court effectively ended racial segregation in U.S. public schools, expanded the constitutional rights of defendants, ensured equal representation in state legislatures, outlawed state-sponsored prayer in public schools, and paved the way for the legalization of abortion.

Today, the Warren Court is hailed and criticized for ending racial segregation in the United States, liberally applying the Bill of Rights through the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, and ending state-sanctioned prayer in public schools.

Warren and Judicial Power

Best known for his ability to manage the Supreme Court and win the support of his fellow justices, Chief Justice Warren was famous for wielding judicial power to force major social changes.

When President Eisenhower appointed Warren as chief justice in 1953, the other eight justices were New Deal liberals appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt or Harry Truman. However, the Supreme Court remained ideologically divided. Justices Felix Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson favored judicial self-restraint, believing the Court should defer to the wishes of the White House and Congress. On the other side, Justices Hugo Black and William O. Douglas led a majority faction that believed the federal courts should play a leading role in expanding property rights and individual liberties. Warren’s belief that the overriding purpose of the judiciary was to seek justice aligned him with Black and Douglas. When Felix Frankfurter retired in 1962 and was replaced by Justice Arthur Goldberg, Warren found himself in charge of a solid 5-4 liberal majority.

Color photograph of former US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren seated in his legal library.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Bettmann / Getty Images

In leading the Supreme Court, Warren was aided by the political skills he had acquired while serving as governor of California from 1943 to 1953 and running for vice president in 1948 with Republican presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey. Warren strongly believed that the highest purpose of the law was to “right wrongs” by applying equity and fairness. This fact, argues historian Bernard Schwartz, made his political acumen most impactful when the “political institutions”—such as Congress and the White House—had failed to “address problems such as segregation and reapportionment and cases where the constitutional rights of defendants were abused."

Warren’s leadership was best characterized by his ability to bring the Court to reach remarkable agreement on its most controversial cases. For example, Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Cooper v. Aaron were all unanimous decisions. Engel v. Vitale banned nondenominational prayer in public schools with only one dissenting opinion.

Harvard Law School professor Richard H. Fallon has written, “Some thrilled to the approach of the Warren Court. Many law professors were perplexed, often sympathetic to the Court’s results but skeptical of the soundness of its constitutional reasoning. And some of course were horrified.”

Racial Segregation and Judicial Power

In challenging the constitutionality of racial segregation of America’s public schools, Warren’s very first case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), tested his leadership skills. Since the Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, racial segregation of schools had been allowed as long as “separate but equal” facilities were provided. In Brown v. Board, however, the Warren Court ruled 9-0 that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment prohibited the operation of separate public schools for whites and blacks. When some states refused to end the practice, the Warren Court—again unanimously—ruled in the case of Cooper v. Aaron that all states must obey the decisions of the Supreme Court and cannot refuse to follow them.

The unanimity Warren achieved in Brown v. Board and Cooper v. Aaron made it easier for Congress to enact legislation banning racial segregation and discrimination in broader areas, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Especially in Cooper v. Aaron, Warren clearly established the power of the courts to stand with the Executive and Legislative Branches as an active partner in proactively governing the nation.

Equal Representation: ‘One Man, One Vote’

In the early 1960s, over the strong objections of Justice Felix Frankfurter, Warren convinced the Court that questions of the unequal representation of citizens in the state legislatures were not issues of politics and thus fell within the Court’s jurisdiction. For years, sparsely populated rural areas had been over-represented, leaving densely populated urban areas under-represented. By the 1960s, as people moved out of the cities, the sprawling middle class became under-represented. Frankfurter insisted that the Constitution barred the Court from entering the “political thicket,” and warned that the justices could never agree on a defensible definition of “equal” representation. Justice William O. Douglas, however, found that perfect definition: “one man, one vote.”

In the landmark 1964 apportionment case of Reynolds v. Sims, Warren crafted an 8-1 decision that stands as a civics lesson today. “To the extent that a citizen’s right to vote is debased, he is that much less a citizen,” he wrote, adding, “The weight of a citizen’s vote cannot be made to depend on where he lives. This is the clear and strong command of our Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.” The Court ruled that the states should attempt to establish legislative districts of nearly equal population. Despite objections from rural legislators, the states complied quickly, reapportioning their legislatures with minimal problems.

Due Process and Rights of Defendants

Again during the 1960s, the Warren Court delivered three landmark decisions expanding the constitutional due process rights of criminal defendants. Despite having been a prosecutor himself, Warren privately detested what he considered “police abuses” such as warrantless searches and forced confessions.

In 1961, Mapp v. Ohio strengthened the Fourth Amendment’s protections by banning prosecutors from using evidence seized in illegal searches in trials. In 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright held that the Sixth Amendment required that all indigent criminal defendants be assigned a free, publicly-funded defense attorney. Finally, the 1966 case of Miranda v. Arizona required that all persons being interrogated while in police custody be clearly informed of their rights—such as the right to an attorney—and acknowledge their understanding of those rights—the so-called “Miranda warning.”

Earl Warren Waving Goodbye
Original Caption) Outgoing Chief Justice Earl Warren waves from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of 16 years on the high tribunal. Earlier in the day he administered the oath to his successor, Warren Earl Burger as President Nixon looked on. Nixon praised Warren for his "dignity, example, and fairness.". Bettmann / Getty Images

Calling the three rulings the “handcuffing of the police,” Warren’s critics note that violent crime and homicide rates rose sharply from 1964 to 1974. However, homicide rates have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s.

First Amendment Rights

In two landmark decisions that continue to spark controversy today, the Warren Court expanded the scope of the First Amendment by applying its protections to the actions of the states.

The Warren Court’s 1962 decision in the case of Engel v. Vitale held that New York had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by officially authorizing mandatory, nondenominational prayer services in the state’s public schools. The Engel v. Vitale decision effectively outlawed mandatory school prayer and remains one of the Supreme Court’s most-often challenged actions to date.

In its 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision, the Warren Court affirmed that personal privacy, though not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, is a right granted by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. After Warren’s retirement, the Griswold v. Connecticut ruling would play a decisive role in the Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion and confirming the constitutional protection of women’s reproductive rights. During the first six months of 2019, nine states pressed the boundaries of Roe v. Wade by enacting early abortion bans outlawing abortions when performed after a certain point early in the pregnancy. Legal challenges to these laws will linger in the courts for years.

Sources and Further Reference