Study Guide

Chief Justice Warren in Miranda v. Arizona

By Supreme Court of the United States

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Chief Justice Warren

Q: What did President Dwight Eisenhower say was the "biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made"?

A: Appointing Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (Source)


Before becoming the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Earl Warren spent his legal career in that hotbed of progressive politics and earthquakes: the great state of California. And during his tenure as Chief Justice, Warren caused plenty of legal earthquakes of his own.

When he appointed Warren to the job in 1953, Ike thought he was getting a moderate Republican Chief Justice.


He ended up with a liberal, reform-minded activist who challenged the status quo and made an irreversible progressive mark on the Court. See, Warren was Chief Justice during a time of huge social upheaval. His Court upheld civil rights for African Americans, dealt blows to desegregation, and expanded civil liberties for everyone, including accused criminals.

The Back Story

A law grad of UC Berkeley, Warren became the District Attorney for Alameda County, an office where he got a reputation for relentlessly going after corruption. He got interested in politics and was elected California's Attorney General in 1938, managing to win the Democratic, Republican, and Progressive Party primaries. As A.G., he continued his attacks on corruption, closing down illegal dog racing tracks and going after gambling and organized crime. (Source)

In 1942, Warren was elected Governor of California, where he got another reputation: one for being a fiscal conservative but a social progressive, cutting taxes but expanding programs for the elderly and increasing state funding for colleges. He was considered one of the bright lights of the Republican party, and ran unsuccessfully for Vice President with Thomas Dewey in 1948.

The Warren Court

Eisenhower tapped Warren for the Supreme Court in 1953. Right out of the gate, the Warren Court, comprised of a majority of liberal justices, decided one of the most important cases of the era: Brown v. Board of Education. The decision famously unanimously struck down the "separate but equal" rule established in Plessy v. Ferguson, and stated that segregated public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. Yeah, we're talking about a major turning point for civil rights.

The Warren Court was on a roll. Here are some other landmark cases that expanded civil liberties and fought against racial discrimination:

  • 1961: Mapp v. Ohio. The court ruled that evidence obtained by the police without proper warrants was in violation of the Fourth Amendment and was inadmissible in court.
  • 1964: Reynolds v. Sims. The Court determined that the state of Alabama violated the Equal Protection clause by setting up its legislative districts in a way that disenfranchised minority voters.
  • 1965: Griswold v. Connecticut. The Warren Court decided that it was unconstitutional for Connecticut to make it illegal for married couples to buy contraceptives or be counseled about using them. (By 1965 it was only illegal in Connecticut and Massachusetts.) They found that the ban violated the right to privacy for married couples.
  • 1967: Loving v. Virginia (1967). The Court struck down the ban against interracial marriage. That's right—in 1967, it was illegal in 16 states in the South for Blacks and whites to marry. The Lovings had been sentenced to a year in prison just for getting married.

You get the idea.

This was the mood of the Court, led by Warren, that decided Miranda v. Arizona. Along with the Brown decision, Miranda was the most famous and controversial decision on Warren's watch. Critics thought it gave criminals permission to run wild in the streets and handcuffed the cops instead of the perps.

But Warren was adamant about the importance of police respecting the rights of all suspects:

Crime is contagious. If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. (Syllabus.IV.2)

And that wasn't the only colorful language in the decision. Warren liked to make his points memorable. Here's another gem, regarding police conduct in interrogations:

"If you use your fists, you are not so likely to use your wits." (Opinion.I.6)

The Legacy

In changing the shape of society in the '50s and '60s to one more familiar to us today, Warren and his court are remembered as the catalyst for all this change. Warren was known for being stubborn and relentless in pushing through his opinions, and some of the other justices felt he always thought he was on the side of righteousness, while history seems to tell us he was on the side of civil rights.

When Eisenhower appointed Warren as Chief Justice, he knew him as a man who, in the interest of national security, had agreed to seriously curtail the civil liberties of Japanese-Americans by supporting their relocation from their homes during WWII and confining them to internment camps (a decision Warren later deeply regretted). Eisenhower thought he was getting a hard-liner law-and-order guy.

You can't always get what you want, Ike, but you just might find, you get what you need.

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