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Profile: Earl Warren

Earl Warren was a participant or observer in the following events:

One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom.One of the first schools to implement desegregation is Barnard Elementary in Washington, DC. This photo shows black and white children in the same classroom. [Source: Library of Congress]The landmark US Supreme Court case Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, rules that racial segregation in public schools violates the Fourteenth Amendment. The unanimous decision overturns the doctrine of “separate but equal” education codified in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (see 1896). The case was argued by the Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organizations filed the suit as a challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, and combined five separate cases under the one Brown v. Board of Education rubric. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case three different times in three years. In a unanimous decision, the Court finds that the “separate but equal” doctrine violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and orders desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” Chief Justice Earl Warren wants to send a powerful signal to the nation in the ruling, and works to craft a unanimous decision with no dissents or even concurrences. He writes the Court’s opinion himself, but seeks the input of the other justices in two draft opinions that he tailors into his final opinion. One of the compromises he is forced to make is to put off the question of actually implementing desegregation until a later time, inadvertently allowing many states to keep segregationist practices in place for decades. Warren says the opinion should be “short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” Justice William O. Douglas is delighted by Warren’s opinion, and in a note to Warren, writes: “I do not think I would change a single word in the memoranda you gave me this morning. The two draft opinions meet my idea exactly. You have done a beautiful job.” Justice Harold H. Burton writes a memo to Warren reading in part: “Today I believe has been a great day for America and the Court.… I cherish the privilege of sharing in this.… To you goes the credit for the character of the opinions which produced the all important unanimity. Congratulations.” In an internal memo, Justice Felix Frankfurter writes of the practice of segregation: “That it is such has been candidly acknowledged by numerous accounts & adjudications in those states where segregation is enforced. Only self conscious superiority or inability to slip into the other fellow’s skin can fail to appreciate that.” Frankfurter says the ruling makes for “a day of glory.” Some right-wing and segregationist organizations condemn the ruling; Warren is forwarded a letter from an official of the Sons of the American Revolution claiming the ruling is attributable to “the worldwide Communist conspiracy” and that the NAACP is financed by “a Communist front.” President Eisenhower will take strong action to reduce segregation in America, but refuses to endorse the Court’s ruling. In 1967, one of the NAACP’s lead attorneys in the case, Thurgood Marshall, will go on to serve on the Supreme Court. (Library of Congress 1994; American Civil Liberties Union 2012)

In the case of United States v. Auto Workers, the Supreme Court reverses a lower court’s dismissal of an indictment against a labor union accused of violating federal laws prohibiting corporations and labor unions from making contributions or expenditures in federal elections (see June 23, 1947). Justice Felix Frankfurter writes the majority opinion; Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black dissent. In a 5-3 decision, the Court finds the International Union United Automobile, Aircraft, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America liable for its practice of using union dues to sponsor television commercials relating to the 1954 Congressional elections. (UNITED STATES v. AUTO. WORKERS 2011; Moneyocracy 2/2012) Law professor Allison R. Hayward will later write that in her opinion the Court finding created “a fable of campaign finance reform… dictated by political opportunism. Politicians used reform to exploit public sentiment and reduce rivals’ access to financial resources.… [J]udges should closely examine campaign finance regulation and look for the improper use of legislation for political gain instead of simply deferring to Congress. Undue deference to the Auto Workers fable of reform could lead to punishment for the exercise of political rights. Correcting the history is thus essential to restoring proper checks on campaign finance legislation.” Hayward will argue that Frankfurter used a timeline of Congressional efforts to curb and reform campaign finance practices as an excuse to allow powerful political interests to exert restrictions on political opponents with less access to large election finance contributions. The case is used uncritically, and sometimes unfairly, to influence later campaign reform efforts, Hayward will argue. (Hayward 6/17/2008 pdf file)

A Time magazine profile lambasts the racist, anti-Communist John Birch Society (JBS—see December 2011), in what is many Americans’ first exposure to the group. It delineates the organization’s penchant for secrecy, its domination by its “dictatorial” leader, Robert Welch, and its hardline battle against almost every element of the federal government as “agents of Communism.” Forty to 60 percent of the federal government is controlled by Communism, the JBS believes. Time calls the organization “a tiresome, comic-opera joke” that nonetheless has cells in 35 states and an ever-widening influence. In Wichita, Kansas, JBS student members are trained to inform their cell leaders of “Communist” influences they may detect in their classroom lectures, and the offending teacher is berated by parents. A Wichita businessman who wanted to give a donation to the University of Wichita decided not to donate after being hounded by local JBS members, who wanted the university to fire professors and remove selected books from its library. “My business would be wrecked,” the businessman explains, “if those people got on the phone and kept on yelling that I am a Communist because I give money to the school.” Nashville, Tennessee, JBS members organize community members to verbally attack neighbors whom they suspect of Communist affiliations. JBS’s current priority, Time writes, is to bring about the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren. Welch, who obtained his wealth from his brother’s candymaking business, believes that Social Security and the federal income tax are all part of the “creeping socialism” that is taking over the federal government. He retired from the business in 1957 and founded the JBS shortly thereafter, naming it for a US Navy captain killed by Chinese Communist guerrillas after the end of World War II. Welch’s seminal tract, “The Politician,” accuses President Eisenhower and his brother Milton Eisenhower of being Communist plants, and accuses both men of treason against the nation. (Time 3/10/1961)

Abe Fortas.Abe Fortas. [Source: US Senate]Abe Fortas resigns from the Supreme Court under pressure. Fortas, a liberal Democrat and political crony of outgoing president Lyndon Johnson, was originally chosen by Johnson to replace retiring Chief Justice Earl Warren, but conservatives in the Senate blocked Fortas’s confirmation (see June 23, 1969). President Nixon intended to fill the Court with as many of his choices as possible, and he, along with conservative Republicans and Democrats who do not agree with Fortas’s liberal stance on civil rights, targeted Fortas for a smear campaign designed to force him off the bench. Nixon used what White House counsel John Dean will later call “an ugly bluff” against Fortas: He has Attorney General John Mitchell inform Fortas that he intends to open a special probe into Fortas’s dealings—while on the bench—with a financier already under investigation. Mitchell insinuates that he will put Fortas’s wife, herself an attorney and partner at Fortas’s former law firm, and other former partners of Fortas’s on the witness stand. Whether Fortas actually had any direct illegal dealings with this financier is unclear—certainly his dealings had such an appearance—but the bluff worked; Fortas agreed to retire early, thus clearing a position on the Court for Nixon to fill. Nixon will find it difficult to replace Fortas with one of the Southern conservatives he wants on the Court; Senate Democrats will lead successful efforts to block the nomination of two of Nixon’s nominees, the respected, moderately conservative Clement Haynsworth, and the virulently racist G. Harrold Carswell, himself recommended by Mitchell’s assistant, William Rehnquist. (Carswell’s failed nomination will produce a memorable statement from Senator Roman Hruska (R-NE), who, in defense of Carswell, tells the Senate: “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?”) Nixon will use the defeats to make political hay in the South by claiming that Senate Democrats do not want a Southerner on the bench. (Dean 2007, pp. 127-129)

Warren Burger.Warren Burger. [Source: US Government]Former appellate judge Warren Burger begins his term as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Burger was named months before by newly elected president Richard Nixon after two earlier candidates, former Eisenhower attorney general Herbert Brownell and former GOP presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, turned down the job. Supreme Court Associate Justice Abe Fortas was to be Chief Justice as one of then-president Lyndon Johnson’s last acts, but Senate Republicans, supported by conservative Senate Democrats who oppose Fortas’s civil rights rulings, successfully filibustered Fortas’s nomination and actually forced Fortas’s premature resignation (see May 14, 1969). The blocking of Fortas has an additional element: in June 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced that he would step down, giving Johnson ample time to place Fortas in the position. However, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon wanted to name the Chief Justice himself, if he won the national election. To that end, Nixon sent word to Congressional Republicans to block Johnson’s naming of a replacement for Warren. Senate Republicans launched the filibuster after being given information that intimated Fortas had received an inordinately large honorarium for teaching a course at American University, a sum said to have been raised by one of his former law partners. (Dean 2007, pp. 127-128)

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (see September 26, 1986), 80, dies after a ten-month battle with thyroid cancer. He will be replaced by John Roberts (see September 29, 2005), who formerly clerked for him. Rehnquist’s term as Chief Justice marked a “sea change” in the direction of the Court. Former Clinton solicitor general Walter Dellinger says: “It is quite clear that there are three dominant chief justices of American history, and they are John Marshall, Earl Warren, and William H. Rehnquist. I think that there’s just no question that he’s of enormous historical importance.” Conservative law professor and former Reagan Justice Department official Douglas Kmiec, a co-founder of the Federalist Society, says that Rehnquist presided over a “sea change” in the Court, taking it sharply to the right. (Neary 7/20/2005; Mauro 9/5/2005; Dean 2007, pp. 129-137)


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