From the Archives: Earl Warren Dies at 83; Chief Justice for 16 Years


Earl Warren, the former California governor who served for 16 years as chief justice of the United States, presiding over a Supreme Court that was in the vanguard of social change, died Tuesday night. He was 83.

Mr. Warren, who retired from the court five years ago, died at Georgetown University Hospital. He had been hospitalized since July 2, suffering from congestive heart failure and coronary insufficiency.

During Mr. Warren’s service as chief justice the Supreme Courts issued a stream of momentous decisions that wrought major changes in American society and politics. Among them was the unanimous ruling Mr. Warren himself wrote that banned racial segregation in public schools.


A hospital official said Mr. Warren died at 8:10 p.m. of cardiac arrest. His wife, Nina, and one his daughters, Nina Elizabeth Bryan, were with him at the time.

A Supreme Court spokesman said that Justices William O. Douglas and William J. Brennan had visited Mr. Warren during the afternoon and stayed until 5:30 p.m. Mr. Warren wanted them to stay on, but they felt they should not, given his condition, the spokesman said.

Mr. Warren retired in June, 1969, after 52 years of public service as a prosecuting attorney, three-time governor of California, twice aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination, once nominee for Vice President, and finally chief justice.

Mr. Warren ranked with John Marshall and Roger Taney as one of the three most important chief justices in the nation’s history.

He headed the Supreme Court as it outlawed school segregation, imposed the “one man-one vote” doctrine on the states and altered police and trial procedures to safeguard the rights of defendants.

In Marshall’s time, the court first asserted its authority to pass judgment on the laws of Congress. The Marshall Court played a major role in strengthening the federal government.


The Taney Court, in the middle of the 19th century, was in the crossfire between the federal government and the state and had to deal with the controversial slavery question.

The Warren Court dealt with the basic rights of individuals as they are enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Mr. Warren explained in his last term:

“We go with the cases that come to us; and when they come to us with a question of human liberties involved in them, we either hear them and decide them or we let them go and sweep them under the rug only to leave them for future generations.

“That has been done I this country not only long enough but altogether too long . . .”

Like Marshall, he took the view that the Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution. He was often charged with reading his own philosophy, his own sense of fairness and decency, into the Constitution, giving it a meaning it was not intended to have.

Americans who believed in an active court and like what it did in Mr. Warren’s 16 years were adoring in their praise. Americans who thought the court went too far and who didn’t like its decisions were bitterly critical. “Impeach Earl Warren” signs popped up along the highways.

Mr. Warren generally ignored his critics. A virtuoso politician, he was always genial in public. But the veil slipped occasionally. He told an interviewer once: “Sometimes it makes you cringe to see what other people say and write.” Mr. Warren’ smooth manner, distinguished good looks and enthusiastic Americanism probably made the court’s controversial rulings more palatable to the public at large than then might have been with a more combative man as chief justice.


Within the court his enormous political talents heightened harmony among always highly independent justices. He respected their difference, however, and remarked on his last day on the bench, June 23, 1969:

“We do not always agree. I hope the court will never agree on all things. If it ever agrees on all things, I am sure that its virility will have been sapped . . .”

When Mr. Warren came to the court in 1953 he was 62 years old, had served an unprecedented three terms as governor of California and failed twice to obtain the Republican nomination for President.

He had run for Vice President on the 1948 GOP ticket with Thomas E. Dewey and lost. He was in the middle of the road politically — a mildly liberal Republican who Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower could comfortably name to the No. 1 judicial post in the nation.

On the court, Mr. Warren found Hugo L. Black and William O. Douglas, scholarly champions of the Bill of Rights. They eventually forged common ground and were joined in 1956 by William J. Brennan Jr., another Eisenhower appointee with liberal instincts.

When Arthur J. Goldberg was named to the court by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 the liberals had a safe majority that held through changes in personnel until the end of Mr. Warren’s years.


Eisenhower was reported to have called the Warren appointment, on reflection, “the biggest damn-fool mistake I ever made.”

The major thrust of the Warren Court was toward equality— between the races, between rich and poor criminal defendants, between country and city voters.

The unanimous Brown vs. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The ruling overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine laid down by the court in 1896.

Mr. Warren wrote: “Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe it does . . .

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal . . .”

In later years, the court struck at discrimination in voting, in marriage laws, in the use of public parks, airports and bus terminals and in housing sales and rentals.


In the criminal law field, the court adopted Black’s view that the Bill of Rights was made binding on the state after the Civil War with the 14th Amendment. Gradually, those federal rights were applied to local police conduct and state trials.

They included the right to be secure against “unreasonable” searches, the protection against self-incrimination, the right to a jury trial, the right to have assistance of counsel and many others.

Police, therefore, were compelled to obtain search warrant to seize evidence and they were force to advise suspects that they could refuse to answer questions and could have a lawyer by their sides.

On the trial level, prosecutors were curbed in several respects. And defendants charged with serious crimes were entitled in all instances to be represented at trail by a lawyer.

By Mr. Warren’s own assessment, the court’s biggest accomplishment in his time was the series of rulings requiring states to make legislative districts as nearly equal in population as possible. The goal was to have citizens’ votes count equally.

“Legislators represent people not trees or acres,” Mr. Warren said in one of the leading decisions, Reynolds vs. Sims, in 1963. “Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests.”


The rulings uprooted districting schemes that had given disproportionate representations in the state legislatures and in Congress to rural areas.

All the states eventually reapportioned their legislative districts. Many revised their congressional districts.

The court did much more under Mr. Warren: it ruled out religious exercises in the public schools, permitted the circulation of spicy movies, books and magazines, reined in government Red-hunters and encouraged the regulatory agencies to use their powers to protect the public.

Many of the court’s decisions brought angry protests from the South and from conservatives everywhere. Troops had to be sent to some Southern states to enforce court desegregation decrees.

Congressmen, prosecutors and even some judges said the criminal law decisions would hamper law enforcement. And critics of the “one man-one vote” decisions said the rulings violated states’ rights.

Mr. Warren seemed to enjoy his work as chief justice and his leisure time as well. He traveled extensively and often turned up at Washington Redskins football games.


His one major outside assignment was serving as chairman of the presidential commission that concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, had assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Dallas Nov. 22, 1963.

As governor of California, Mr. Warren won a reputation for picking able officials and giving them a free hand.

He had numerous statewide conferences on such problems as employment, water, youth, crime, mental health an traffic safety. A State water pollution control board was set up. Special classes were established for mentally retarded children. Child care centers were instituted to help working parents. Some taxes were reduced.

California offered its veterans its own GI Bill of Rights, including low interest for home and farm buying and educational benefits.

A 10-year highway building program was inaugurated, coupled with increased gasoline taxes and other motor levies. Driving courses were made compulsory in all public secondary schools.

No other governor in American history, perhaps, had ever seen the building of so many highways, schools and hospitals. The penal system was enlarged and revamped to place greater emphasis on rehabilitation. California had to build and build to keep pace with its population.


Mr. Warren started his public career in 1919, when he was appointed deputy city attorney for Oakland. That was shortly after he completed World War I service as an infantry first lieutenant. Next he became deputy district attorney of Alameda County and then, in 1925, district attorney, an office he held 13 years.

He was elected in 1938 to a four-year term as attorney general — the only Republican to service a Democratic landslide in California — and from that office was elected in 1942 to the governorship, an office that he relinquished in 1953 to become chief justice.

It was as a racket-busting district attorney of Alameda County that Mr. Warren first won statewide recognition.

None of the convictions he obtained during 13 years was ever upset on appear.

Mr. Warren continued his war on crime as governor. His California Crime commission, created in 1947, was the forerunner of similar bodies in other states. He succeeded in having slot machines outlawed and laws enacted that were designed to tax the profits out of crime.

Although a lawyer by profession, Mr. Warren had never served as a judge of any kind before his appointment as chief justice of the United States.

Eisenhower, who made the appointment, explained at the time that he had searched for a man of integrity and honest, and one with knowledge of both government and law. He said he also wanted a man with a middle-of-the-road philosophy, and a man who was healthy and strong and relatively young.


President Eisenhower and other dignitaries were present when this self-made son of a Norwegian-born railway car inspector became the 14th chief justice on Oct. 5, 1953.

Mr. Warren was an avowed candidate for the presidential nomination in both 1948 and 1952.

The 1948 nomination went to New York’s Gov. Dewey. Mr. Warren accepted second place on the ticket with the understanding that the powers of the Vice Presidency would be increased.

The two governors formed the first East-West, coast-to-coast Republican presidential ticket.

Four years after the defeat of the Dewey-Warren ticket, Mr. Warren was a contender for presidential nomination again.

The battle for the nomination narrowed to a contest between Eisenhower and Sen. Robert A. Taft. Warren helped to swing it to Eisenhower by siding with him in the disputed delegate contest that foreshadowed Taft’s ultimate defeat.

Mr. Warren was Republican national committeeman for California from 1936 to 1940. He was the Republican state chairman from 1934 to 1936.


In 1944 he achieved his first party recognition nationally by being named temporary chairman of the Republican National Convention at Chicago and delivering the keynote speech.

Mr. Warren was born in Los Angeles, March 19, 1891. His father, Methias H. Warren, was brought in infancy from Norway and became a car repairman and later a car inspector for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

The name originally was Varran, but was Anglicized by his grandfather after he emigrated to America with his wife and two sons. Mr. Warren’s mother, Christine Hernlund, was the daughter of Swedish immigrants.

Mr. Warren liked to say that his parents “couldn’t even afford the luxury of a middle name” for him. He was just Earl Warren.

In 1925 Mr. Warren married Mrs. Nina Palmquist Meyers, a widow with a small son. She also was of Swedish immigrant parentage. Five children were born to the Warrens — Virginia, Earl Jr., Dorothy, Nina Elizabeth and Robert — and he adopted his wife’s son James, by her former marriage.

Mr. Warren always found time to devote to his home and family. He often read to the children from story books and the Bible and made it a practice to read the Bible himself daily, usually at bedtime.


In Bakersfield, where he attended public schools, Mr. Warren played the clarinet in bands and orchestras and was member of the Musicians’ Union.

He was graduated from the University of California, receiving the degree of bachelor of letters in 1912 and doctor of jurisprudence in 1914.

In high school and college he worked at various odd jobs, including railroad “callboy,” freight hustler, mechanic’s helper, truck driver and clerk.

From 1914 to 1917 Mr. Warren practiced law.

A 33rd degree Mason, he was the grand master of the California Grand Lodge of Masons in 1935-36. He was a member of the Native Sons of the Golden West and of the Elks.