Last week, we looked at the past decade of the Roberts Court and highlighted one case from each year in the 2010s. This week’s column takes a look back at the 1950s and 1960s, the period of the Warren Court, thanks to an excellent book that came out this month.

The Warren Court

Earl Warren came to the Supreme Court in 1953, serving as the court’s chief justice from 1953 until his retirement in 1969.

To commemorate “the 50th anniversary of the end of the Warren Court, the eminent legal scholars Geoffrey R. Stone and David A. Strauss wrote a concise, but still telling, book, “Democracy and Equality: The Enduring Constitutional Vision of the Warren Court.”

Reflecting on the court’s 12 key decisions, Stone and Strauss effectively demonstrate that, contrary to criticisms of the Warren Court as one engaged in judicial activism, “the Warren Court’s approach to the Constitution was consistent with both the most basic values of our Constitution and the most fundamental responsibilities of our judiciary.” The book is a worthy addition to those works that have explored the Supreme Court’s history and impact on our county.

‘Democracy and Equality’

Describing the changes that the Warren Court addressed in our nation and how we view the Constitution, the authors assert that “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.”

Sadly, there is some thought that for the first time, the court is reverting back to some of the pre-Warren Court positions.

To support the assertions of the authors about the Warren Court and its principled approach to the Constitution, Stone and Strauss “illustrate [their] claims about the Warren Court by examining 12 of its most important and controversial decisions.”

The 12 decisions covered by “Democracy and Equality” are:

1. Brown v. Board of Education (1954) — The court held that separate but equal was unconstitutional in the public school arena. “Brown was the centerpiece of the Warren Court’s most important efforts — its attacks on Jim Crow segregation in the American South.”

2. Mapp v. Ohio (1961) — Held that the exclusionary rule applied not just to the federal government, but to the states as well. While many “of the provisions of the Bill of Rights focus specifically on the rights of criminal defendants … before the Warren Court, many of these rights were more theoretical than real.”

3. Engel v. Vitale (1962) — The court held that the establishment clause prohibits a public school from sponsoring school prayer to begin the school day. This was “one of the Supreme Court’s most controversial decisions ever.”

4. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) — The Warren Court held that if a criminal defendant could not afford counsel, the state has an obligation to appoint counsel to protect the defendant’s rights. Unlike the controversial Engel decision, “Gideon was one of the Warren Court’s most celebrated decisions.”

5. New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) — The court ruled that public officials must show that a statement was made with actual malice to prevail. The case is “one of the Supreme Court’s most important and influential decisions on the meaning of the First Amendment.” (Last term, Justice Clarence Thomas strongly urged the court to revisit Sullivan.”

6. Reynolds v. Sims (1964) — The court held that electoral districts must be roughly equal in population. This decision was the culmination of a “series of Warren Court decisions” upholding the ideal of “one person, one vote.”

7. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) — The court held that individuals have a right to contraception. The case was “a daring decision, in the sense that the court dismissed the traditional view that a state’s moral judgments about sex must override personal interests in marital intimacy.”

8. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) — This well-known decision was the Warren Court’s “most famous and most controversial decision about the rights of criminal defendants.”

9. Loving v. Virginia (1967) — The court found a Virginia law unconstitutional that prohibited interracial marriage. The case “completed the arc that began with Brown.”

10. Katz v. United States (1967) — The court “addressed the question how [the Fourth Amendment] guarantee applies to methods … that did not exist” when the Fourth Amendment was ratified.

11. Shapiro v. Thompson (1969) — The court held that state durational residency requirements for public assistance were unconstitutional based in part on the “right to travel between states.”

12. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) — The court held that speech was protected even if advocating use of force or violence unless the danger is likely to be “imminent lawless action.”


As David Cole, a constitutional professor at Georgetown School of law and who is quoted on the book jacket, notes the book by Stone and Strauss provides a “persuasive defense of the Warren Court and the constitutional principles it established: equality, liberty, dignity and democracy.”

But while establishing such principles, “the justices of the Warren Court lived up to the highest responsibilities of the judiciary in our constitutional form of government.”

Stone and Strauss give us a glimpse of democracy and equality and what we might aspire to as a nation. Whether we will continue that path or are on the course of a new, regressive path on the major issues is a continuing debate we will have for years to come.