Warren Court

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Warren Court

From 1953 to 1969, Earl Warren presided as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Under Warren's leadership, the Court actively used Judicial Review to strictly scrutinize and over-turn state and federal statutes, to apply many provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states, and to provide opportunities for those groups in society that had been excluded from the political process. During Warren's tenure, the Court became increasingly liberal and activist, drawing the fire of political and judicial conservatives who believed that the Warren Court had over-stepped its constitutional role and had become a legislative body. The Warren Court itself became a catalyst for change, initiating reforms rather than responding to pressures applied by other branches of government.

The Warren Court was committed to the promotion of a libertarian and egalitarian society. The Court used the Strict Scrutiny test of constitutional review to strike down legislation that directly abridged the exercise of fundamental rights or narrowed the number of people who might exercise them and to invalidate legislation that discriminated on the basis of race, religion, and other suspect classifications. Under strict scrutiny, the government has the burden of proving that a compelling state interest exists for the legislation and that the law was narrowly tailored to minimize the restriction on the fundamental right. This burden proved difficult to meet during the Warren Court years, turning the federal courts into institutions that protected the interests of politically unpopular individuals and members of relatively powerless minority groups who had been victimized by pervasive historical, political, economic, and social discrimination.

Racial Discrimination

The first major decision of the Warren Court is arguably its most important. In brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), the Court overruled the 1896 Supreme Court decision of plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, which had allowed racially segregated facilities on trains and by implication in public schools. The Court made clear that state-sponsored racial Segregation of public schools was inherently unequal and that it violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Brown decision helped trigger the modern Civil Rights Movement. During the 1960s the Warren Court upheld federal civil right legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000a et seq.) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C.A. § 1973 et seq.). The Court struck down state laws that were racially discriminatory, including statutes that forbade racially mixed marriages. The Court applied the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished Slavery, to outlaw all discrimination in the sale and rental of property and in the making of contracts.

Voting and Reapportionment

Apart from upholding the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Warren Court removed impediments to voting by striking down state poll tax and property qualifications, unreasonable residency requirements, and obstacles to putting third political parties on the ballot.

The Court also changed the makeup of state legislatures by reversing precedent and agreeing to hear legislative reapportionment cases. In reynolds v. sims, 377 U.S. 533, 84 S. Ct. 1362, 12 L. Ed. 2d 506 (1964), Warren wrote the opinion that has come to be known as the one person, one vote decision. Reynolds and a series of cases that followed forced state legislatures to be apportioned equally on the basis of population rather than geographic areas. Reapportionment based on population resulted in a shift of political power away from sparsely populated rural areas to metropolitan areas.

Criminal Procedure

The Warren Court aroused bitter controversy with its decisions in Criminal Procedure. The Court sought to provide equal justice by providing criminal defendants with an attorney in felony cases if they could not afford one (gideon v. wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 83 S. Ct. 792, 9 L. Ed. 2d 799 [1963]). It also ruled that indigent defendants could not be denied the opportunity to appeal their cases or to participate fully in post-conviction proceedings because of a lack of funds to obtain the necessary transcripts or to hire counsel.

The decision in miranda v. arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 86 S. Ct. 1602, 16 L. Ed. 2d 694 (1966), proved to be the Warren Court's most controversial criminal procedure case. The Court required what has come to be known as the Miranda warning: police must inform arrested persons that they need not answer questions and that they may have an attorney present during questioning.

In addition, the Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to incorporate federal constitutional rights, thus making them applicable to the states. Using this process, the Court applied the Exclusionary Rule to the states. This meant that evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment could not be used in a criminal prosecution. The Warren Court also applied to the states the federal constitutional right against Cruel and Unusual Punishment in the Eighth Amendment, the Right to Counsel in the Sixth Amendment, the right against compelled Self-Incrimination in the Fifth Amendment, and the rights to confront witnesses and to a jury trial in all criminal cases, which are guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. These decisions radically changed the criminal justice system and generated criticism that the Court had gone too far in protecting the accused.

First Amendment

The Warren Court sought to protect First Amendment rights. It invalidated the Georgia House of Representatives' exclusion of one of its members because of his antiwar and antidraft statements. The Court also attacked vagueness and overbreadth in compulsory loyalty oaths and ruled against the compulsory disclosure of organization memberships. It moved to invalidate attempts in southern states to inhibit the functioning of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to make public the identities of the organization's members, and to deny its members opportunities for public employment.

During the 1960s, the Court upheld the legitimacy of demonstrations at state capitols and in the streets and sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. It also upheld the right of individuals to picket in a privately owned shopping center and the right of high school students to express their opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to school.

The Warren Court also changed state slander and libel laws that stifled open discussion of controversial issues. It held that persons who are public officials or public figures cannot recover damages in a Defamation action unless they prove that a false statement was made with "actual malice" (with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false).

The Court also reviewed many freedom of religion cases, provoking controversy over its interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Warren Court struck down Bible reading and the reciting of state-written prayers in public schools, even those religious acts done on a voluntary basis. The Court did, however, uphold, with qualifications, state aid to children attending religious schools. As to the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause, the Court sought to protect the rights of religious dissenters and nonconformists when it struck down a Maryland constitutional provision requiring the declaration of a belief in God as a prerequisite to holding public office. It also held that an individual need not believe in a supreme being to be eligible for Conscientious Objector status.

Right to Privacy

One of the most significant rulings of the Warren Court was its recognition of the constitutional right of privacy. In griswold v. connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965), the Court struck down a Connecticut statute that prohibited the dissemination of Birth Control information. In declaring the right of privacy, the Court laid the groundwork for the post–Warren Court decision in roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), which gave women the right to have an Abortion.

Further readings

Compston, Christine L. 2002. Earl Warren: Justice for All. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Horwitz, Morton J. 1999. The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice. New York: Farrar, Staus, & Giroux.

Krotoszynski, Ronald J., Jr. 2002."A Remembrance of Things Past?: Reflections on the Warren Court and the Struggle for Civil Rights." Washington and Lee Law Review 59 (fall).

Lewis, Frederick P. 1999. The Context of Judicial Activism: The Endurance of the Warren Court Legacy in a Conservative Age." Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

Powe, Lucas A. 2001. The Warren Court and American Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Schwartz, Bernard, ed. 1996. The Warren Court: A Retrospective. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Apportionment; Baker v. Carr; Custodial Interrogation; Equal Protection; Incorporation Doctrine; Libel and Slander; Mapp v. Ohio; New York Times Co. v. Sullivan; Overbreadth Doctrine; School Desegregation; Symbolic Speech; Void for Vagueness Doctrine.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.