As I mentioned many times before, the second half of the 20th century is known for the fight and expansion for the rights of many minorities, women, and other groups who demanded societal change. However, despite these movements and protests, none of the changes enacted as a result would be here today if not for the government. Unfortunately, to bring about landmark changes, the United States government is the only one who can bring about reform. We all learn that there are three branches of government: the legislative branch writes laws, the executive branch carries out laws, and the judicial branch evaluates laws. The judicial branch is perhaps the most influential when enacting social reform, as they have the power to deem laws unconstitutional and even overturn laws already approved. Only after the Court deems a law constitutional or unconstitutional can the law be passed and carried out. Dozens of justices have had the honor of serving on the highest court of the land, but one of the most well-known and influential courts is the Warren Court of the 1950s and 60s.
Before Earl Warren joined the Court, school districts in seventeen American states required black schoolchildren to go to different schools from white children. In twenty-seven states, it was illegal for a black person to marry a white person. Every state in the nation violated the principle of “one person, one vote”. Government officials could sue their critics for ruinous damages for incorrect statements, even if the critics acted in good faith. Members of the Communist Party and other dissenters could be criminally prosecuted for their speech. Married couples could be denied access to contraception. Public school teachers led their classes in overtly religious prayers. Police officers could interrogate suspects without telling them their rights. People were convicted of crimes on the basis of evidence that police officers had seized illegally. And criminal defendants who could not afford a lawyer had no right to a public defender. As you can see, America was unrecognizable just a few decades ago. The Warren Court changed all of that. In all of these ways and others, the Constitution, as we know it today, is very much the work of the Warren Court. It would be unthinkable to return to the world that existed before the Warren Court.
The Warren Court is known for being one of the most liberal and democratic courts in history, and it sure held up to that reputation. Ruling on groundbreaking cases such as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which outlawed segregation in schools, and Engel v. Vitale in 1962, which called for the separation of church and state in public schools. They ruled on many cases involving voting fairness and protecting minorities and laid down the groundwork for how we question suspects in the criminal justice system. Warren’s Court ordered lawyers for indigent defendants, in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), and prevented prosecutors from using evidence seized in illegal searches, in Mapp v. Ohio (1961). The famous case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) stated that everyone, even one accused of crimes, still enjoyed constitutionally protected rights, and the police had to respect those rights and issue a specific warning when making an arrest. Without the Warren Court, many aspects of our lives would be drastically different.
Conservative critics attack the Warren Court, calling them “lawless. However, all of these criticisms are mistaken. Critics, who say that the Warren Court “went too far” or was “too activist” should be asked: which of the Warren Court’s decisions would you overturn? Would you say that states should have the power to segregate public schools? Or make it a crime to marry someone of a different race? Or forbid married couples to use contraceptives? Would you really reject the principle of one person, one vote? Do you disagree that the central meaning of the First Amendment is that people must be free to criticize the government? Or that a criminal defendant who can’t afford a lawyer should have one nonetheless? Some of the most conservative Supreme Court justices of the last fifty years have accepted — even celebrated — the warnings required by the Warren Court’s once-controversial decision in Miranda v. Arizona. So what was it about the Warren Court that was so activist, or excessive, or illegitimate?
The Warren Court’s decisions were innovative, of course. They changed the law, and they changed society. Even the Warren Court’s most controversial decisions had deep roots in American law and traditions, and many decisions of the conservative Courts that followed it — were principled, lawful, and consistent with the spirit and fundamental values of the Constitution. The Warren Court’s vision was deeply democratic, and the Warren Court’s most fundamental commitment was to the principles of democracy.
The Warren Court acted on the premise that the role of the Supreme Court is to intervene when American democracy was not truly democratic: when some groups were marginalized or excluded and denied their fair share of democratic political power. Most important, the Warren Court protected the interests of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, who were effectively kept from voting in many places and were utterly excluded, often violently, from positions of influence. The Warren Court protected political dissidents, stating unequivocally that free and open debate is a central commitment of any democratic government. In its “one person, one vote” decisions, the Warren Court put an end to manipulative and unjustified disparities in people’s ability to elect their representatives. The Warren Court acted on behalf of members of minority religious groups whose interests were disregarded by the majority, and of criminal defendants who were often also members of discriminated-against minority groups and who lacked any effective voice in politics.
The Warren Court did the things — fighting race discrimination, making sure that everyone’s vote counted the same, protecting dissidents from a majority that wanted to silence them — that a democracy needs to do and that elected representatives cannot always be trusted to do. They protected all Americans while upholding democratic ideals and made America what it is today. On behalf of everyone who enjoys the rights the Warren Court brought forth, I say thank you to Earl Warren and the Warren Court.