Thursday, May 17, 2007

Family History

My middle name is my father's first name: Warren. I'd always assumed that the typical explanation was the correct one, until my mother mentioned that they'd made the selection in honor of Earl Warren, the former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In yesterday's Writer's Almanac, Garrison Keillor had this to say about the Warren Court:

The legal basis for segregation came from the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which had established the precedent that separate facilities for black and white students could be constitutional as long as those separate facilities were equal. When Brown v. Board of Education first came before the Supreme Court in 1952, most of the justices were personally opposed to segregation, but only four of them openly supported overturning such a long-established precedent.

But in September of 1953, just before the rehearing of the case, Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson died of a sudden heart attack. For the new chief justice, President Eisenhower chose Earl Warren, then the governor of California. As governor of California, Earl Warren had helped to intern many Japanese Americans during World War II, and most historians believe he felt deep regret at having done so. Ever since the war, he had devoted himself to the issue of civil rights. So when he became chief justice, he was the ideal person to argue for declaring segregation unconstitutional.

Warren's vote alone could have given the court a 5-4 vote margin overturning segregation, but Warren decided that he had to get a unanimous decision for such a controversial case. Warren had never served as a judge in his life. But he was a master politician, and he used his art of persuasion to bring the last few justices around to his point of view. The final holdout was Justice Stanley Reed, from Kentucky. Warren finally persuaded Reed that a lone dissent from a Southerner could have an inflammatory effect on the nation.

Once he had all the votes, Warren drafted the decision himself. To announce the decision, he read it aloud to a crowd at the court on this day in 1954. He said, in part, "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race ... deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does." Justice Stanley Reed, who had been the final holdout, wept as the decision was read.

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