This is the grave of Earl Warren.
Born in 1891 in Los Angeles, Warren grew up in Bakersfield, son of a poor family. His father worked on the railroad. But he managed to go to college at the University of California in Berkeley. While there, he became politically active, interested in the Progressive movement. California was one of the nation’s most conservative states at this time, but at the same time, had a strong reformist bent from those bucking that. Warren admired Hiram Johnson, California’s leading Progressive, who had been elected governor. Warren went to law school upon graduation. UC law grads were not asked to take the bar, so he immediately started practicing after graduation. He volunteered in World War I. He wanted to be an officer but was rejected for hemorrhoids. After having surgery to remove them, he ended up volunteering as a private. His leadership skills caught attention and he rose quickly, finishing the war as a first lieutenant assigned to train draftees at a camp in Virginia.
After the war, Warren returned to the Bay Area. He became a legislative aide for a state representative from Oakland, then deputy city attorney for that city, and then Alameda County’s deputy district attorney and then district attorney. He was disliked by the conservative Republican establishment, but he was popular and was elected twice to the position, once over a concerted conservative attempt to get rid of him. He was known for nonpartisan governance, enforcing Prohibition, and fighting corruption. This clean government Progressivism would long be Warren’s hallmark, long after it had been replaced by newer political movements. He began gaining national attention over his anti-corruption efforts, which included prosecuting members of his own department. Unfortunately, he was also staunchly anti-union (a Republican after all) and was often accused by unionists as attacking their movement unfairly. There was probably some truth to this.
Despite his Progressive background, like many of his ilk, he started out by hating the New Deal. He led Hoover’s 1932 reelection campaign in Alameda County and in 1934, became chairman of the California Republican Party, where he led the nasty campaign against Upton Sinclair‘s run for governor that year. Warren also led a ballot measure to make the position of state attorney general a full-time job instead of having some lawyer do it part time while running his own practice. With that approved, Warren ran for the position in 1938 and won. California had a law that candidates could run for an office under multiple parties. He ran as both a Republican and a Democrat, as well as the smaller Progressive Party. He won all three! So yeah, he won the general.
As attorney general, Warren did a lot of work to fight corruption. He also really, really, really hated Asians. This was a plague of west coast whiteness. Up and down the coast, whites wanted Asians expelled and had often done so violently. Warren took this attitude to the position of attorney general, turning the state’s legal system against the Japanese. That included land confiscations and forced sterilization, that all-too-common method among whites of reducing minority populations. He was a member of the Sons of the Golden West, an anti-Asian pro-white organization, and pushed for legislation to expand land confiscations of Japanese property, even before World War II. And then of course Warren led the fight to put Japanese-Americans into concentration camps in 1942. Probably no one in California is more responsible for this; even though no one really opposed it, Warren was its biggest champion. He later regretted it, at least as an old man when he wrote his autobiography. But to be honest, it’s hard for me to admit that his future actions on the Supreme Court makes up for this horrible crime against humanity and I really don’t care about his old man apologies for it.
In 1942, Warren also ran for governor and won. As he claimed to put himself above party and stated he would work better with FDR than the state’s current Democratic governor, he won the election handily. His big efforts were about efficient government and postwar planning. He led heavy state investment into California’s roads and helped influence what would become the 1956 Interstate Highway Act through what he pushed for as governor. He attempted to get universal health care in his state, but big business and the doctors defeated that attempt. He began moving beyond his racist past by signing desegregation legislation and stopped enforcing the state’s anti-miscegenation law. He attempted to get an anti-employment discrimination commission passed but statehouse Republicans blocked it. He easily won reelection in 1946 and 1950 and even refused to endorse his fellow Republican Richard Nixon for the Senate because he thought Nixon a toad. As he was a moderate liked by conservatives and the head of the go-go state of the postwar period, Warren was a huge power player in national politics too.
Warren really wanted to be president and launched campaigns in 1948 and 1952. In both cases, he was outmatched by Thomas Dewey’s friends, first in favor of Dewey himself and for Eisenhower, who Dewey courted and supported. But Warren did a lot for Eisenhower’s election and as the first Republican to hold the Oval Office in 20 years, he knew he had a debt to pay. He offered Warren Secretary of Interior, but that wasn’t enough. So he told him that he’d get the first Supreme Court position. As it turned out, that was Fred Vinson’s Chief Justice seat. Warren was granted a recess appointment and then unanimously approved by Congress. He is the last Chief Justice to have ever held elected office.
While few accused Warren of having a great legal mind (which is itself completely overrated among the writers about an institution more defined by political hackery, defending the rich, and sheer wankery than anything else. I mean, really, who cares), he certainly made his mark on the Court. Now, for conservatives, naming Warren Chief Justice was no victory because he really wasn’t one of them and, increasingly, that even included race. Eisenhower himself found that out pretty quick with Brown, a decision that made him question whether he had a made the right choice. The president himself was certainly more than comfortable with segregation. Now, in some ways, Brown is a slightly overrated decision because of the “all deliberate speed” clarification the next year which vastly delayed any desegregation and of course American schools are still highly segregated because white people will do anything to keep it that way, including liberal whites talking about how they are only sending their kids to the “good” schools while just reinforcing another generation of white supremacy and racial inequality. But at the very least, that decision ended an epoch in American history and helped usher in another. Moreover, Warren may not have had great legal skills, but he definitely had good political skills and since there were only 5 real yes votes to overturn Plessy, he used his full range of charm to get a unanimous decision so that resistance to it would be lessened. The last holdout was Forman Reed but Warren got his unanimity.
Although Republicans had at one time wanted Warren to replace Eisenhower, he said no. And then he publicly endorsed John F. Kennedy because he had such contempt for Nixon. Warren’s big push in the 60s was to get the Bill of Rights to apply to the states. This is what led to the banning of school prayer, expanded civil liberties, made it harder to prosecute for libel, and threw out Connecticut’s birth control ban in Griswold. Warren himself wrote the majority opinion in Miranda. He pushed to expand federal control over legislative districts to prevent racial bias in apportionment. He wrote the majority opinion in Loving v. Virginia, throwing out that state’s ban on interracial marriage and he and he Court forced the Georgia legislature to seat Julian Bond. Warren of course also chaired the Warren Commission to investigate Kennedy’s assassination. He hated the experience, mostly the secrecy, which did help foster conspiracy theories that Warren really didn’t like. He personally was convinced that Oswald acted alone.
By 1968, Warren wanted to retire. He really did not want Nixon to pick his replacement. So he gave LBJ time. Unfortunately, Johnson tried to elevate Abe Fortas. The always difficult combo of Republicans and southern Democrats filibustered Fortas, partially because they hated Warren and his civil rights decisions and partly because of Fortas’ corruption. And then Nixon won and Warren, old and tired, decided he couldn’t not resign, as much as he hated Nixon. He really regretted this once the Burger Court got underway and started destroying what was good about America. He later wrote that if he had known what was going to happen to the country, he would have stayed on, as tired as he was.
Warren spent his later years working on his memoirs (published after his death) and doing sweet lucrative speeches. While he avoided criticizing the Burger Court publicly, privately he was angry. He also said in private that Nixon was “perhaps the most despicable president that this country has ever had.” He’d probably think differently now!
Warren died on July 9, 1974. Dying, he wanted to know one last thing–how the court would rule in U.S. v. Nixon, forcing Nixon to turn over the Watergate tapes. Visiting him, William Brennan and William Douglas assured him the voice was going to be unanimous against Nixon. Relieved, Warren died in peace later that night. He was 83 years old.
Earl Warren is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. If you would like this series to visit other Supreme Court justices, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Stanley Reed is in Maysville, Kentucky and Sherman Minton is in New Albany, Indiana. Previous posts in this series are archived here.