Earl Warren’s impact outshines Jerry Brown’s 

click to enlarge Earl Warren
  • David Rubinger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
  • Chief Justice Earl Warren speaks during his address at John F. Kennedy Memorial.
This weekend, Jerry Brown became California’s longest-serving governor. It is a noteworthy milepost, and one that has been marked by press coverage on Brown, his accomplishments to date and his aspirations to cement a lasting legacy.

Not to rain on the Brown’s parade, but the greater significance was the 60th anniversary of the event that allowed him to claim his distinction.

It was 60 years ago Saturday that Gov. Earl Warren resigned to become chief justice of the United States, an event that arguably did more to transform modern American history than anyone’s ascension to any government position since.

Just six months after joining the court, Warren wrote the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education opinion that led to the desegregation of U.S. schools and, ultimately, society. In his 16 years as chief justice, the Warren Court asserted the Bill of Rights to expand civil and individual rights in a way that no court before or since has done.

Warren and Brown are the only two people to be elected to three terms as California governor.

When Warren left Sacramento on Oct. 5, 1953, less than three years into his third term, it was a departure that had been widely anticipated.

To no small degree, Dwight Eisenhower owed his presidency to Warren, who won the 1952 Republican presidential primary in California as a favorite son. At the GOP convention, Warren delivered the California delegation to Eisenhower, helping him to prevail against Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. In the fall, Warren helped Eisenhower secure a landslide win in California over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

In his book “Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren,” the California writer Ed Cray notes that, in appreciation, Eisenhower’s top adviser Lucius Clay offered Warren a blank check for a federal appointment.

Cabinet posts and ambassadorships were discussed but rejected by Warren. It was then agreed that Warren, a former Alameda County district attorney and California attorney general, would be appointed to fill the first vacancy on the Supreme Court.

In the summer of 1953, Warren privately agreed to accept the post of solicitor general, a position that would bolster his credentials when the moment eventually came for his Supreme Court appointment.

Before that decision could be announced, however, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died of a heart attack.

Cray writes of the circumstances in late September 1953 in which Warren, standing his ground, persuaded the Eisenhower White House to keep its commitment — even though the first vacancy unexpectedly had become the position of chief justice, rather than that of an associate justice.

With a decision still unmade, Warren headed to a hunting trip on Santa Rosa Island with Oxnard Supervisor Edwin Carty. On Sept. 25, following a prearranged plan, a Navy PT boat radioed the island that Warren was “needed back in Ventura.”

Warren and Carty sailed to Carty’s beach home on the Rincon, where Warren placed a call to Eisenhower’s attorney general, Herbert Brownell.

Warren returned to Sacramento the next day, and Brownell flew on the president’s plane from Washington to meet him. The two talked for more than an hour on the plane, and an agreement was reached: The job would be Warren’s, but he had to agree to be in Washington within the week so he could be sworn in on the first Monday in October, when the court opened its term.

This, of course, was in an era when Senate confirmations of Supreme Court appointments were prompt and routine.

Eisenhower formally announced the appointment on Sept. 30, and on Oct. 5 — just 10 days after being interrupted while on his hunting trip — Warren resigned as governor and was sworn in as chief justice of the United States.

That day changed American history, ushering in a court — reviled by conservatives at the time — that rendered decisions not only to integrate schools, but also to expand the rights of individuals to protect themselves against the power of the government.

This year, as a footnote, Saturday was also the day when Jerry Brown became the longest-serving governor in California.

Timm Herdt covers California state government and politics for the Ventura County Star.

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Timm Herdt

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