Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Justice For All

By Shawn Healy
Jim Newton made an outstanding contribution to our understanding of Chief Justice Earl Warren and his impactful tenure on the Supreme Court from 1953 through 1969 in his 2006 book Justice For All (Riverhead Books, 525 pp.). The tome is an extensive biography of a monumental man. It begins with his birth in Los Angeles and upbringing in internal Bakersfield. Warren attends the University of California-Berkeley for both his undergraduate and law degrees, then remains in the Bay Area to launch his legal career. He begins as a prosecutor in Alameda County and uses his law and order record to attain the top law enforcement job in the Golden State, Attorney General. From here he moves on to Governor, serving longer than any person in state history.

While Governor, Warren was first offered a place on the Republican presidential ticket with NY Governor John Dewey in 1944. He declined and delivered a lackluster convention speech, but was persuaded to join the reprise effort in 1948, the infamous Harry Truman comeback. The loss left Warren well-positioned to claim the party nomination in 1952, but his ambitions were undermined by fellow Californian, U.S. Senator Richard Nixon, who would go on to become Eisenhower's VP. Warren was promised the first Supreme Court vacancy by Ike, and when Chief Justice Vinson died suddenly, Warren lobbied intensely for the nomination he eventually received.

Warren entered a Court in ideological disarray, but quickly molded it into his own liking, finding unanimity in perhaps the most consequential case in the 20th Century, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), decided at the end of his first term as Chief Justice. This ignited a firestorm throughout the South, leading to the Southern Manifesto and billboards calling for Warren's impeachment. The Court would retrench a bit during the later years of the Eisenhower Administration, but would come out firing once more as Camelot entered the White House. Baker v. Carr, a decision that outlawed disproportionate districting that failed to take into account population, followed in 1962. In 1963, Gideon v. Wainwright would mandate legal representation for indigents at the state level, and three years later Miranda v. Arizona would require police to read defendants their rights from that day forward.

Warren's legacy is not without warts, however, for he was a man of moderate inclinations who was not owned by either the political left or right. A WWI veteran, he voted with the majority to prosecute young men who burned their draft cards during the Vietnam War, refusing to equate conduct with speech. The O'Brien Test remains with us until this day, but Warren later pivoted toward protection of non-speech expressive behavior in the landmark student expression case, Tinker v. Des Moines, decided during his final term on the bench.

Warren's earlier years have similar warts, from hasty prosecutions on the accused as a county prosecutor to his inexcusable complicity with the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans as California Governor during WWII. Although a Republican, Warren always displayed a progressive bent alongside his law and order tendencies. He drew support across the ideological spectrum as Attorney General and Governor, and later drifted decisively to the left on issues involving civil liberties, poverty, even war. Warren and his ideological ally William Brennan, both Eisenhower appointees, would later convince the President that they were his two greatest mistakes while in the White House. Warren indeed voted for Adlai Stevenson and for Democratic presidential candidates from 1956 on.

Warren became close with President Kennedy, even warning him of Texans' temperament as he made that fateful journey to the Lonestar State in November 1963. The Chief Justice would later be asked by President Johnson to chair the committee charged with the investigation of the martyred president's assassination. He team, which included future president Congressman Gerald Ford, produced a report in 1964 that produced charges of conspiracy almost from the day it was released. In painstaking detail, the author concludes that the conclusions of the Warren Commission have stood the test of time, conspiracy theories and conventional wisdom aside.

Warren served the country he loved for more than 50 years at the time of his retirement in 1969. He had hoped to be replaced by a Democratic president, namely Lyndon Johnson, but the nomination of Justice Abe Fortas was nothing less than a complete and utter debacle, and the nomination to replace Fortas with Thornsberry also failed. Indeed, the Senate even failed to consider the nomination of the former. This left the decision to President-elect and hated rival Richard Nixon, who tapped Warren Burger for the post, adding Harry Blackmun to replace the disgraced Fortas.

Warren, despite his many detractors, fundamentally reshaped the American legal landscape during his tenure on the High Court. Ever the pragmatist, Warren sided with what he thought was right, shunning harsh ideological doctrines. His skill was the gentle art of persuasion, the ability to form majorities behind positions that extended legal rights for minorities, the poor, even students. He is nothing less than a giant, but ironically, there are few testaments to his accomplishments in either California or Washington, D.C. The author attributes this to the fact that Warren was owned by neither the left or the right. The former is uncomfortable with his law and order record and cannot excuse him for his role in Japanese internment. The latter shuns his inclination to "legislate from the bench," "undermine" states rights, and extend legal rights to accused criminals.

Short of a monument, Warren's contributions to the law nonetheless stand. Many of them, like desegregation, one person-one vote, and Miranda rights, are considered settled law. Even the conservative-trending Burger and Rehnquist Courts did little more than clip at the edges of the Warren Court's doctrines. At a time of intense ideological polarization, Warren stands as somewhat of an anachronism. One cannot help thinking that something was lost when Warren departed the world in 1974, just days before Richard Nixon would resign. In perhaps the bitterest of ironies, Nixon escorted Warren's widow Nina to his funeral. Two California icons departed the national scene at once, one disgraced, the other revered.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at