The secret of Earl Warren

Anthony Lewis

April 15, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

SAN DIEGO — IMAGINE AMERICA in 1991 with the South still rigidly segregated and blacks playing no meaningful part in Southern political life. Imagine small numbers of rural voters controlling most of our state legislatures. Imagine America under a deadening repression of free speech and ideas.

That is the country we might have had except for one thing: the service of Earl Warren as chief justice of the United States.

Warren was born 100 years ago last month. The centennial has just been celebrated by his law school, Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley, and by the University of California at San Diego. It is time to think again about this remarkable figure, a judge who had more influence on our society than most presidents.

The monuments of his 16 years on the Supreme Court are well known. He took a divided court and led it to a unanimous decision against public school segregation: a decision that aroused the civil rights movement and led to legislation.

The Warren Court held that unequal legislative districts violated the Constitution.

It made the protections for criminal defendants applicable against states as well as the federal government. It broadened freedom of speech and press.

But there remains a certain mystery about Earl Warren. He never articulated a judicial philosophy, as the strong figures who served on the Supreme Court with him did so memorably -- Hugo Black, for example, and Felix Frankfurter. He was just one among them, but he made such a difference. How?

The influence of Warren rested fundamentally, I think, on his faith in this country -- and the vision he had of it. He was patriotic in the most old-fashioned way. He loved the United States. He believed that it had a unique destiny. He believed in its promise: that the despised and rejected could be raised up, the humanity and talent of each of us recognized.

In our less happy frame of mind we may think that Warren lived in a simpler, easier age. But there was a good deal of poison in our national life then: brutal official racism, for one thing, and a paranoid fear of communism.

To say that is to recognize another of Warren's qualities, courage. He was subjected to vicious attacks, by hate groups and by politicians. He minded them greatly, but they did not affect his decisions.

For all his faith in our democracy, he was not naive about the flaws in human nature. He detested crime, and he knew its pain -- his own father had been murdered. But he thought the state must be held to standards of decency in fighting crime.

How unhappy he would have been, as a proud Californian, about video film of Los Angeles policemen beating a prisoner.

Or about the Supreme Court decision the other day that the use of a coerced confession can be harmless error in a trial.

"The abhorrence of society to the use of involuntary confessions," he wrote for the court in 1959, "does not turn alone on their inherent untrustworthiness. It also turns on the deep-rooted feeling that the police must obey the law while enforcing the law. . . ."

The other important element in Earl Warren's influence as chief justice was character. He meant what he said. He could be trusted.

Not that he had been a blameless politician. As governor of California during World War II he supported the incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent. But through most of his life he stood for decency in politics. That was why he was the only

person ever elected governor of the state three times, once with the nomination of both parties.

It is impossible to imagine Earl Warren campaigning for office by mouthing lies about an opponent -- lies written for him by a political consultant.

It is impossible to think of him, if he had become president, urging another people to rise up against their tyrannical ruler and then looking the other way when they were slaughtered.

As governor and as chief justice, Earl Warren believed that government had a responsibility to make things better for Americans -- and could do so. Perhaps that belief does come from another era.

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