1953 50 Years Ago

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On September 30, President Dwight D. Eisenhower named Gov. Earl Warren of California as Chief Justice of the United States. Since the appointment came while the Senate was in recess, Warren took his seat immediately. Confirmation followed by a unanimous voice vote on March 1, 1954.

Despite having been the Republican nominee for Vice President in 1948 and having mounted an unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1952, Warren was popular with Democrats as well. For this reason, ambitious California Republicans, especially Vice President Richard Nixon, were glad to see Warren, who had dominated the state’s politics for a decade, removed to Washington.

At the 1952 Republican National Convention, Warren had swung his delegates to Eisenhower at a crucial point, and in the general election he had worked vigorously for Ike in California. Shortly after the election, Eisenhower repaid the favor by informally promising Warren a Supreme Court seat. He later came to regret the appointment as “the biggest damn fool mistake I ever made.” The President prized moderation and “absence of extreme views” in judges, but within a year Warren showed his boldness by writing the decision for a unanimous court in Brown v. Board of Education , which overturned half a century of precedent by outlawing segregation in public schools.

For a decade and a half the Warren Court continued to support the civil rights movement and anger strict constructionists with its decisions in such cases as Reynolds v. Sims (1964), which ordered state legislatures to be apportioned on a one-person, one-vote basis, and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), which required police to inform criminal suspects of their rights against self-incrimination. Warren wrote these decisions himself. Other landmarks of the Warren Court included Engel v. Vitale (1962), outlawing school prayer, and Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), which guaranteed criminal suspects the right to counsel. Warren also chaired the commission that investigated President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.

Warren retired in June 1969, with his old California rival Richard M. Nixon as President. He had announced his intention to resign in June 1968, in hopes that President Lyndon Johnson would nominate a liberal successor, but Johnson’s choice, Associate Justice Abe Portas, withdrew when faced with a filibuster led by Southern Democrats. Warren nonetheless lived to see Nixon disgraced and nearing removal from office at Warren’s death on July 9, 1974.