Son of a Norwegian immigrant who worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, Earl Warren was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Bakersfield, where he worked on railroad crews during the summer to save money for college. He attended the University of California at Berkeley, earning both his bachelor's (1912) and his law degree (1914). He was admitted to the California bar in 1914 and served in the Army during World War I. He practiced law in San Francisco with several firms before taking a position in 1920 with the Alameda County district attorney's office in Oakland. He was elected district attorney of the county in 1925 and continued to be reelected through 1938, when he was elected Attorney General of California.
In 1942 Warren ran successfully for Governor of California as a Republican and was reelected in 1946 and 1950. He ran for Vice President of the United States in 1948 on the Republican ticket with Thomas Dewey, who lost to the Democrat, Harry Truman. Not known as a brilliant lawyer, Warren nevertheless developed a national reputation for integrity and decency. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, commenting, "He represents the kind of political, economic, and social thinking that I believe we need on the Supreme Court." In the next few years Warren led the Court in a series of liberal decisions that revolutionized the role of the Court. Eisenhower later remarked that his appointment was "the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made."
There was little in Warren's background or character to explain his rise to power. A middling scholar, not very charismatic, Warren was nevertheless an honest man who cared about others, and those qualities somehow carried him to the top. He could put people at ease, make them like him, and at times even inspire them with simple eloquence and force of will. He demanded loyalty, could be stubborn, and quietly held grudges. Although he came with no judicial experience, no sign of literary talent, and limited familiarity with constitutional issues, he enjoyed power and was astute and decisive in its exercise, and he was determined to set his stamp upon the Court.
Within a year Warren had managed to bring a divided Court together in a unanimous decision, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), overturning the infamous 1896 "separate but equal" ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson with regards to public education. The new ruling banned segregated schools and gave birth to the modern civil rights movement. Throughout the South, billboards proclaimed "Impeach Earl Warren." Tough-minded, amiable, and persuasive, Warren led the Court to landmark decisions throughout the 1960s that extended individual rights and the rights of the accused and forced the government to justify any attempts to infringe such rights. The Court introduced the concept of "one man, one vote," limited the scope of police searches, extended the right of accused felons to have counsel even if they were unable to pay, and recognized a fundamental right of privacy.
The decisions of the Warren Court triggered a conservative backlash and inspired calls for judicial "restraint" that are still sounding today. Warren retired in 1969.