The Book of the Week is “Chief Justice, A Biography of Earl Warren” by Ed Cray, published in 1997.
Born in March 1891 in Southern California, Warren was encouraged by his Scandinavian parents to pay for his education by working odd jobs all through his childhood. Only a small percentage of his contemporaries graduated college. But his father ended up paying his tuition anyway.
Warren majored in political science and law, so that when he graduated– in a class of fifteen students– he could call himself a lawyer, as there was no bar exam then in California.
In 1912, Warren became a Progressive after he saw what a robber baron his father’s employer– the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco– was. It owned the legal system.
The California government’s patronage system was threatened by the International Workers of the World (IWW or the “Wobblies”), a radical group that fought for workers but not for America in World War I. Most of its members consisted of low-level migratory laborers on farms, in mines and the logging industry who were “… womanless, voteless and jobless.” Warren had to deal with labor issues such as the above when he was a legislative aide in Northern California in the early 1920’s.
The local Alameda County government turned a blind eye to vice, which was everywhere. It was the Prohibition Era, after all. Warren joined the Republican party and worked in the District Attorney’s office, where enforcement was a joke. He wanted to change that scene someday.
Warren got his chance in January 1925. He was appointed interim Alameda County District Attorney. He launched an investigation into the cozy relationships among bail bondsmen, jailers and attorneys in the county. In 1926, he was formally elected in a landslide, as a conservative Republican. He prosecuted the sheriff, a KKK member, and an attorney for graft.
After his reelection, Warren proceeded to drain the swamp that was the Oakland Police Department. Ironically, his office was a center of white slavery, of sorts. Attorneys fresh out of law school with impeccable records labored long hours for no pay until there was a staff opening so that Warren could officially hire them.
By 1930, Warren had eliminated partisan patronage from the District Attorney’s office. In 1934, he was elected California Republican Party chairman. By summer 1939, as Attorney General of California, he sought to completely rid the state of illegal gambling in the form of betting on racing dogs and slot machines (including those on cruise ships).
Warren tended to side with liberals on the issues of civil rights and health care. Yet, during WWII, he strongly argued for rounding up all Japanese people living in coastal California who were not American citizens, and confining them in camps. But he was anti-union and his economic views favored capitalism over socialism. He hated the New Deal.
Despite his contradictory words and actions, Warren was handily reelected governor of California in 1946. One reason, though, was that he was allowed to list his name under both the Republican and Democratic parties on the ballot.
Warren attempted to provide all Californians with catastrophic health insurance via legislation. “The outpouring of [newspaper] editorials lent the appearance of massive public opposition to health insurance. That persuaded [California] legislators. Warren could not even invoke party discipline.”
On the other hand, Warren was sufficiently popular to be drafted to run for president. In May 1952, Richard Nixon made a secret deal with Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower that if Eisenhower got the nomination, Nixon would agree to become vice president.
Two months later, on the train that took Eisenhower, Nixon and Warren and their entourages to Chicago for the Republican National Convention, Nixon betrayed both of the other candidates in his party, Robert Taft and Warren, telling people that Eisenhower should get the delegates.
In June 1964, as is well known, President Lyndon Johnson bullied Warren into leading a commission that investigated the late President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (during which the panel members had to pore through about 25,400 pages of FBI reports and more). One member, then-Congressman Gerald Ford insisted that the assassination was a Communist plot instigated by Fidel Castro. No evidence of that was found. In September 1964, the report that described the results of the inquiry numbered 888 pages.
Read the book to learn more about Warren’s words and actions in connection with the landmark cases he handled as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s; about which members of the American government are the ultimate interpreters of the United States Constitution; how due process was affected when the legal system permitted the presence of a media circus in the courtroom in a 1954 case that was about due process itself; and other hot-button issues, such as civil rights, gerrymandering, pornography, etc.