The Warren Court and American Politics

The Warren Court and American Politics

The Warren Court and American Politics

The Warren Court and American Politics


The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren was the most revolutionary and controversial Supreme Court in American history. But in what sense? Challenging the reigning consensus that the Warren Court, fundamentally, was protecting minorities, Lucas Powe revives the valuable tradition of looking at the Supreme Court in the wide political environment to find the Warren Court a functioning partner in Kennedy-Johnson liberalism. Thus the Court helped to impose national liberal-elite values on groups that were outliers to that tradition--the white South, rural America, and areas of Roman Catholic dominance.

In a learned and lively narrative, Powe discusses over 200 significant rulings: the explosive Brown decision, which fundamentally challenged the Southern way of life; reapportionment (one person, one vote), which changed the political balance of American legislatures; the gradual elimination of anti-Communist domestic security programs; the reform of criminal procedures ( Mapp, Gideon, Miranda); the ban on school-sponsored prayer; and a new law on pornography.

Most of these decisions date from 1962, when those who shaped the dominant ideology of the Warren Court of storied fame gained a fifth secure liberal vote. The Justices of the majority were prominent individuals, brimming with confidence, willing to help shape a revolution and see if it would last.


It is common to describe the judiciary as a “co-equal” branch of the government, but for much of American history this was a mere formal equality. Alexander Hamilton aptly described the judiciary in The Federalist 78 as “the least dangerous branch” because it lacked both the sword to enforce its decisions and the purse to buy compliance. By the time Earl Warren retired in 1969 after sixteen years as chief justice, the name “Warren Court” had become a household word and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Supreme Court was a co-equal branch of government.

On the opening page of his short 1998 book, The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice, Harvard Professor Morton J. Horwitz writes that it is “increasingly recognized as a unique and revolutionary chapter in American Constitutional history” where the Court “regularly handed down opinions that have transformed American constitutional doctrine and, in turn, profoundly affected American society.” David O’Brien’s widely read Storm Center has a heading in its opening chapter that aptly conveys the modern reality: “No Longer ‘the Least Dangerous Branch.’”

The Warren Court and American Politics has two goals. The first is to help revive a valuable tradition of discussing the Supreme Court in the context of American politics. The second seeks to replace stereotypes with information by synthesizing the numerous books and articles on the Supreme Court, its decisions, and its justices during Warren’s tenure. While both of these goals are basically self-explanatory, perhaps a word or two about each is justified at the beginning.

There was once a flourishing genre of Supreme Court scholarship intertwining the Court and politics, led by major figures such as the holders of Princeton’s McCormick Professorship of Jurisprudence—successively Edward S. Corwin, Alpheus Thomas Mason, and Walter E Murphy—as . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.