Chief Justice Earl Warren retired from the Supreme Court a half-century ago, marking the end of the Warren Court. Before Warren joined the Court, school districts in 17 American states required black schoolchildren to go to different schools from white children. In 27 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,” many of them grotesquely so. 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 the right to use 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 seized illegally. And criminal defendants who could not afford a lawyer had no right to a public defender.
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.
But despite that, the Warren Court today does not have the reputation it deserves. Conservative critics, in particular, have consistently attacked it—now, as they did then—as “lawless.” But the Warren Court had a vision of the role the Supreme Court should play in American government, and even the Warren Court’s most controversial decisions had deep roots in American law and traditions. 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?
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