So said the Times, reporting that on this day in 1953, President Eisenhower tapped Earl Warren as the new Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The “explosive issue” in question was school desegregation. And while most insiders predicted that Warren would be more liberal than his predecessor, Fred Vinson, they also believed that as a “progressive Republican”, Warren would continue to walk the “middle way.” The insiders were wrong. Warren presided over arguably the most liberal Court in the nation’s history, ruling on such landmark cases as Brown v. Board of Education, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Miranda v. Arizona.

Warren arrived on the bench with no experience as a judge or legal scholar. He was 62 years old, a graduate of UC Berkeley and Boalt Hall, a former district attorney, former attorney general of the State of California, and, at the time of his appointment, California’s governor, serving in his third term. The Times painted him as a sensible man of the people, a child of immigrants, someone who “had worked his way through school,” a centrist who had crusaded against corruption, a hail and hearty politician with a “crushing handshake” and “booming laugh.”

Noting that the Court had concluded its previous term with “the tumult of the Rosenberg case”, the Times suggested that the coming session well might be even more controversial. A raft of school desegregation cases peppered the docket. The justices of the Vinson Court had deadlocked over five of those cases, deciding, eventually, to carry them over into the next session. Vinson had then died of a heart attack in September, leading Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, a committed advocate of judicial restraint who also wanted to overturn segregation in public schools, to remark to one of the Court’s clerks: “This is the first indication I have ever had that there is a God.” Eisenhower then replaced Vinson with Warren on this day in 1953. And one assumes that when the court reconvened, Frankfurter, confronted with the extent of Warren’s judicial activism, re-embraced agnosticism.

Warren used his considerable political talents to reunite the divided Court, which, with its unanimous ruling in the Brown case, struck down the doctrine of separate but equal that had been embedded in American law since 1896 and Plessy v. Ferguson. The particulars of the Brown decision are best left for another day. But part of the story suggests that Warren, still guilty over his complicity in interning Japanese Americans during World War II, when he had served as California’s attorney general, decided to atone for his sins by protecting the rights of African-American schoolchildren. Jim Patterson explains that, “Warren approached issues without worrying too much about the niceties of legal precedent or judicial restraint. What the Court must do, he made clear, was to promote social justice.” How sad that the idea of a Supreme Court devoted to pursuing social justice sounds like an artifact of a bygone era, as anachronistic as an Eisenhower Republican.

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