Books

Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made by Jim Newton

Carl P. Leubsdorf [The Dallas Morning News]

In the years after he named Earl Warren as chief justice, President Dwight Eisenhower made clear he regretted the choice, calling it one of his biggest mistakes.


Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made

Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Length: 624
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $32.00
Author: Jim Newton
US publication date: 2006-10
Amazon

In the years after he named Earl Warren as chief justice, President Dwight Eisenhower made clear he regretted the choice, calling it one of his biggest mistakes.

So one of the more interesting items in Jim Newton's meticulously researched and well-written biography of Warren concerns why Eisenhower picked the man who became one of the nation's most influential chief justices.

Eisenhower had agreed to name Warren, who was California governor, to his first Supreme Court opening in recognition of Warren's support at the 1952 Republican convention and his stature in the GOP.

When Chief Justice Fred Vinson died, that first vacancy was for the court's top position, and Eisenhower demurred.

But Warren insisted. "The first vacancy means the first vacancy," Earl Warren Jr. recalls hearing his father tell Attorney General Herbert Brownell on the phone. Brownell flew to California to meet with the governor, who reiterated his position.

"We're stuck with him, I guess," the attorney general told the president, according to a Warren aide.

Though Newton says the governor was "a hard man to read," with "idiosyncratic" politics and a bland exterior, a detailed study of his record as an activist governor might have signaled Eisenhower that he would be an activist liberal judge.

But that study never occurred. Indeed, what Newton refers to as Eisenhower's "casual" approach to Supreme Court picks was repeated several years later. Seeking a northeastern Catholic Democrat already on the bench, the president picked New Jersey Judge William Brennan, another liberal who became Warren's closest collaborator and, for Eisenhower, another mistake.

The Warren and Brennan cases are reminders of how much has changed in selection of Supreme Court judges, and perhaps why. But they are not the only fascinating parts of this excellent biography.

The author, a longtime reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, draws on extensive new interviews and material already in the public record to portray a man with an admirable personal life, honorable instincts and superior political skills. But he was not without flaws.

The author does not excuse his acquiescence in the 1942 decision to "intern" California's Japanese-Americans as potential security risks after Pearl Harbor. He notes that Warren refused for decades to apologize for his role in this "mass denial of civil liberties." He came closest in memoirs published after his death, writing that he "deeply regretted the removal order and my own testimony advocating it."

Similarly, Newton cites both good and bad decisions Warren made in leading the commission that investigated the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. "The Warren commission was not perfect, nor was its chairman," he concludes. "But they were right."

Newton shows how Warren's most famous case, the 1954 Brown decision banning segregated schools, was foreshadowed by his role as governor in eliminating segregation of Indian children and those of "Chinese, Japanese and Mongolian parentage."

The chief justice felt his most important decision was the 1962 verdict requiring "one man, one vote" in legislative apportionment.

Other landmark cases included the reversal of anti-Communist security laws passed during the "Red scares" of the post-World War II era, the decision banning officially sanctioned school prayer in public schools and a series of criminal decisions enhancing the rights of defendants.

Subsequent courts sought to narrow some of them, but most survive. "Given the range and depth of the decisions of the Warren court, one cannot but be struck at the endurance of his work," Newton concludes.

He argues, somewhat less persuasively, that Warren was essentially a centrist, noting that, although his judicial record was liberal and activist, he was personally "too straight and too establishment to fit a liberal model."

But the final verdict on the nature and extent of his influence may be the way conservative critics spent decades decrying him and trying to force him from office. Indeed, Newton concludes, "Warren influenced his times more than any president with whom he served," including the one who appointed him. "Today's America is in many ways the America that Earl Warren made."


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