I learned a great deal not only about Warren himself but about the Supreme Court and the history of California. Newton gives a thorough background of Warren before he was on the court and shows how his political principles developed over time and how his biography shaped his jurisprudence. While Newton is sometimes critical of his subject, especially regarding Warren’s important role in the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes during World War II, he convincingly portrays Warren as a very decent man with an abiding concern for justice and good government. Over time, a growing concern for the government’s responsibility to bring about a fairer society brought him more to the center politically and to leading the Supreme Court in requiring states to treat their citizens by the justices’ understanding of the rights that all Americans ought to enjoy.
Newton’s summary of the comments of one of Warren’s clerks gives a good glimpse of the picture that Newton paints. The clerk said “that the Supreme Court could not function with nine Earl Warrens. It would be too conscious of delivering individual justice and perhaps too heedless of the need to construct an architecture of law. But nor, Gaither added, can the Court survive without one Warren. Someone needs to look after the law, as Warren did, to see not only that it is faithful to its principles but also that it is effective in action, that it serves society and does not merely bind it, that is delivers not just abstract justice but actual fairness” (519).
That’s not the style of constitutional law that I prefer. But this book helped me to understand the case for it much better. While I thought that Newton sometimes slipped into hyperbole about Warren’s accomplishments and I thought his uncritical admiration for JFK was unwarranted, those were only tiny flaws in a truly informative and insightful work.