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The Liberal Agenda and Domestic Policy: The 1960s, The Warren Court

Warren Court decisions, Warren Court, Judicial activism, Brown case, liberal agenda

Judicial activism (taking an active role in shaping public policy) completed the liberal agenda of the 1960s. Ever since Earl Warren’s appointment as chief justice in 1953, the Supreme Court had enraged critics on the right, who pressed for Warren’s impeachment. In the 1950s the Warren Court had integrated public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In the 1960s Kennedy and Johnson appointed four Supreme Court justices, including Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who had argued the Brown case and the high court’s first African American justice. With a liberal majority in place, the Warren court handed down a series of landmark cases that enhanced civil liberties and spurred or legitimized social change.

The Warren Court of the 1960s declared prayer in public schools unconstitutional, enabled Communists to obtain passports, and limited communities’ power to censor books and movies (thus making sexually explicit material available to adults). In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) the Court ruled that state bans on contraceptives were unconstitutional. The Court also consistently upheld civil rights. It found local ordinances upholding segregation in private businesses (such as lunch counters) unconstitutional; reversed the convictions of black demonstrators who had refused to disperse; upheld the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965; declared delays in school desegregation intolerable; and upset a state law that forbade marriage between persons of different races.

Warren Court decisions of the 1960s affected electoral procedures, too. In Baker v. Carr (1962), the Court upheld the principle of “one man, one vote,” which meant that state legislatures had to be reapportioned on the basis of population. Finally, the Court issued controversial decisions that transformed criminal justice. In Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), the Court held that a poor person charged with a felony had the right to be represented by a state-appointed lawyer. In Miranda v. Arizona (1966) the Court declared that a confession could not be introduced as evidence unless the defendant had been informed of his or her rights, including the right to remain silent.

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