The curriculum unit presented will examine and analyze some of the major the decisions of the Warren Court, which dominated American politics to varying degrees from 1953-1969. Teachers will find this unit helpful when examining the Constitution as part of a civics course or chronologically, when studying United States History II.
In the past some of the Courts exerted relatively little influence over constitutional history. As a matter of fact, their decisions had little precedential value. However, that was not the case with the Warren Court. Many people have at least heard of the phrase the Warren Court, but how many people have heard of the Vinson Court or even the Rehnquist Court? The Warren Court decided a number of important constitutional issues during its time and those decisions continue to influence our daily lives. (Urofsky 253)
It is not unusual for the Supreme Court to take on the personality and views of its Chief Justice, and such was the case with Earl Warren. Warren was appointed Chief Justice in 1953 by President Eisenhower. It has been suggested that during his 16-year tenure, he was one of the most influential advocates for social progress in the United States. During his term he dealt with controversial cases on civil rights and civil liberties and the very nature of the political system. According to Lucas Powe in The Warren Court and American Politics, the Warren Court “created the image of the Supreme Court as a revolutionary body, a powerful force for social change.” Teachers should point out to students that the Supreme Court has been viewed in the same way at other times in history. Students might be assigned the task of researching other Supreme Courts that have been categorized as activist courts. In 1953 few Americans would have realized that the Warren Court would be classified as the greatest liberal Court in the twentieth century.
Powe breaks down the years of the Warren Court into three categories. From 1953-1956 much of the time of the Court was spent on school desegregation cases. The years 1957-1961 were characterized as a stalemate when few controversial cases were heard. The years 1962-1968 are often referred to as the “heyday of the Warren Court” when it moved in an aggressively liberal direction on numerous constitutional issues ranging from racial to civil rights, to legislative apportionment, to church state relations, to freedom of speech, to criminal justice. It should be pointed out that liberals did not hold a majority on the Supreme Court until 1962. At this time Justice Felix Frankfurter retired and was replaced by Arthur Goldberg, a Kennedy appointment. According to Peter Irons in A People’s History of the Supreme Court, this was the Court that “liberals cheered and conservatives booed.” Remind students that the Supreme Court does not really work in a vacuum; its decisions on important constitutional questions can only be fully understood when viewed against the background of history and politics. Precedents are usually broken when society demands that they should be broken and sometimes society can be divided on a variety of issues. I think the present day is a great example of a society that is polarized on a variety of topics. Teachers might assign students to research a present day issue on which people strongly agree or disagree. Topics like late term abortion and affirmative action are a couple of possibilities. Ask students to write a persuasive essay using a minimum of three sources that support their own point of view on the topic. As Professor Irons states, “the justices are not simply black robed repositories of objective wisdom, but rather are influenced by politics, by society, each bringing to the Court their individual legal philosophies and moral attitudes that come out of his or her background.” Ask students what they think Irons meant by this statement? Do they think that the present Supreme Court is influenced by public opinion? Ask students to consider the recent cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Teachers might assign interested students the task of researching the case
Elk Grove Unified District v. Newdow
which deals with whether or not the words” under God” should be kept in the Pledge of Allegiance.
As one can imagine, from 1954 on, many members of Congress criticized the Supreme Court for its controversial decisions. Students should be able to adequately explain the system of separation of powers as well as the system of checks and balances. Teachers might consider this an appropriate time to review with students the reasons the Founding Fathers were concerned with balancing the three branches of government. Teachers might want to assign students the task of researching any present day conflict between Congress and the courts. Students might be interested in the present day conflicts over legalizing gay marriage, especially in light of the court decision in Massachusetts. Ask students if they believe the court often deals with problems that the legislature seems to conveniently avoid.
Does the Supreme Court really stand outside of American politics or is it in fact a part of it? Does judicial independence actually exist or is it just a myth? These are questions that teachers should be addressing in the classroom that I believe will create engaging discussions. Are we creatures of nature or nurture? Aren’t we all influenced by our background and experiences that help to shape our personalities? So why should the “nine men and women in black” be any different? Ask students to consider their own qualities. Why do they think they are the way they are? Are they similar in nature and outlook to other members of their family and if so why do they think this is the case?
Three objectives will be addressed in this unit. First, the background of Chief Justice Earl Warren will be examined. Students will understand how your background and life experiences can often times reflect on behavior and attitudes in later life. What experiences in the life of Earl Warren might have influenced his decisions on the Supreme Court? What in his background might account for his viewpoints about life and the law? These are questions that will be discussed in this objective and can also provide for some very stimulating classroom discussions.
The second objective to be considered is to have students trace and understand the development of the
case. Students should be reminded that
Brown v. the Board of Education
did not just appear out of nowhere. According to Morton Horwitz in The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice “…the stage was already set for Brown by earlier struggles over racial segregation.” These earlier struggles will be examined in this unit so that students can understand that this was not an overnight journey, but a long road. Teachers might wish to discuss some of the earlier cases that began to set the stage for the Brown case. Such cases dealt with the idea of an unequal education. These include cases such as
Sweatt v. Painter 1
McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents
The third objective of this unit is to have students analyze and understand those cases that affected criminal procedure. Most of the cases to be examined occurred between the years 1961 and 1968. The Warren Court is well known for its active defense of the rights of people accused of crimes and teachers will be able to engage students in spirited discussions on topics that involve our individual rights. Cases to be studied for this objective will include
Gideon v. Wainwiright
Escobedo v. Illinois
Miranda v. Arizona
In Re Gault
, 1967. Teachers not only will be provided with the background of these cases, but also with the decision of each case. Students usually show great interest in the topic of individual rights. Teachers should point out that these were bold decisions for the times, especially the decision in the Miranda case. According to Ed Cray in A Biography of Earl Warren,” the Miranda decision imposed limits on police interrogation that no state had even mentioned.” As with all decisions that seemed extreme, the outcry from the public and the police was very vocal. Calls for Warren’s impeachment were heard around the country, mostly from the John Birch society. Teachers might assign students to investigate the John Birch Society. What type of organization was it? What were its goals? Why was this organization calling for the impeachment of Warren? Teachers should be able to easily engage students on the topic of police procedure. When discussing the Miranda case and the Escobedo case ask students if they feel the Court was justified in these decisions. Do they believe that accused people have too many protections as a result of theses two cases? What do they think should happen if they know someone is guilty or even confessed to a crime, yet the proper police procedure was not followed? For many students this creates a dilemma and allows the teacher to direct the class in a very engaging discussion.
It has been thirty-eight years since the Miranda decision was handed down and it remains in the view of many as the Supreme Court’s most contentious criminal procedure ruling. The Court has revisited this ruling nearly fifty times, expanding and clarifying the right and establishing exceptions that allow police to use some confessions even if a proper warning was not given. Teachers might wish to assign students the task of researching some of the Supreme Court cases that have modified some of the earlier decisions on police procedure. Cases that students might consider for further examination include
Harris v. New York
Michigan v. Tucker
Edwards v. Arizona
New York v. Quarles
Oregon v. Elstad
Minnick v. Mississippi
Dickerson v. United States
, 2000. Students should be able to explain the facts of these cases as well as the decisions. Ask students if they feel modifications were made because of changing societal values. Consider then if the Supreme Court adjusts its views to match those of society or is it truly an independent body?
A separate category for juvenile procedure will be considered by examining the case of
In Re Gault
1967. According to Edward Cray, Warren had a genuine respect for young people and their concerns and felt the need to extend the Bill of Rights even to the youngest Americans. Students usually find the facts of this case especially appealing. Teachers should compare and contrast the criminal procedures in an adult and a juvenile court system. Ask students if they feel any special preference should be given to a juvenile. What do students believe should be the main goal of each system? Ask students what rights Gerald Gault would have had in 1966 if he were treated like an adult offender. Justice Fortas was especially concerned about the rights or non-rights of juveniles. According to Laura Kalman in Abe Fortas, he referred to some juvenile procedure as the” never never land” of juvenile justice. (Kalman 251) Ask students what they think he meant by this statement.