Earl Warren was governor of California for three terms before appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as the fourteenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1953. While governor, he reorganized the state government, secured major reform legislation that modernized the states hospital system, prisons, and highways, and expanded old-age and unemployment benefits.
It has been said that there have been two great creative periods in American public law. The first being under John Marshall and the Marshall Court. That court basically laid down the foundation of the American system. The second, the Warren era, the court re-wrote much of the corpus of constitutional law. Warren was the leader of that court's work. He actively exercised his authority in order to reach the results that he favored.
Warren's leadership can probably best be seen during the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. When the justices first discussed the case prior to Warren's tenure, they were sharply divided. But under Warren, they ruled unanimously that school segregation was unconstitutional. The unanimous decision was a direct result of Warren's efforts. This and other Warren Court decisions that furthered racial equality were the catalyst of the civil rights protests of the 1950's and 1960's.
Next in line of importance were the reapportionment decisions. the Court ruled that the "one-person, one-vote" principle would control all legislative apportionments. This resulted in electoral reform that shifted voting power from rural districts to urban and suburban areas.
In addition to racial and political equality, the Warren Court also sought equality in criminal justice. Here are some of the landmark decisions and a brief summary that Warren presided over.
Gideon v. Wainwright -1963- required counsel for indigent defendants
Mapp v. Ohio -1961- barred illegally seized evidence
Miranda v. Arizona -1966- required warnings to arrested persons of their right to counsel, including appointed counsel if they could not afford one.
While earlier courts had stresses property rights, under the Warren Court, the emphasis shifted to personal rights, placing them in a preferred constitutional position. This was particularly true of First Amendment rights. Protection was extended to civil rights demonstrators and criticism of public officials, the power to restrain publication on obscenity grounds was also limited. The Court also recognized new personal rights, most notably a constitutional right to privacy.
Although Warren expressed disappointment that he had never become president (he actively sought the Republican nomination in 1948 and 1952), he probably managed to accomplish more than most presidents. He led the Court to what fellow Justice Abe Fortas described as "the most profound and pervasive revolution achieved by substantially peaceful means.