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Earl Warren & William Rehnquist Essay

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Updated: Oct 22nd, 2019

Earl Warren served as a US chief Justice in the Supreme Court between 1953 and 1969. During his tenure, the Supreme Court is on the record for having used judicial review as a scrutiny tool, which was later used to overturn statutes that had been put in place by either state or federal courts. After overturning the statutes, the Warren Court would then apply the bill of rights in deciding the cases.

According to Belknap & Warren (2005), the Warren court revolutionized criminal procedure at a time when the justice system in America had taken on a precedent that seemed to favor a few wealthy individuals hence neglecting the poor and less-knowledgeable people in the society. It is under Warren’s reign that the fourth amendment and the Fifth Amendment were for the first time used to extend the rights of individual citizens and at the same time curtail police powers.

Rehnquist on the other hand was nominated as chief Justice by Ronald Reagan in 1986. He served for 11 years, during which some critics note that there was no significant changes in the courts. Notably however, Rehnquist was more conservative and believed that the judiciary should let justice take its course by ‘meddling’ less in cases (Plotz, 1998).

Unlike the Warren court however, the Rehnquist court is accused of having weakened the use of Miranda rights in prosecutions, and granting police officers more leeway to conduct searches without obtaining search warrants. Plotz (1998) further accuses Rehnquist of being more conservative on racial crimes.

However, he is credited for having presided over major decisions which involved allowing free speech on the web, giving gay people their rights and abortion rights. During his tenure, Rehnquist is said to have ensure that the Supreme Court handled less cases than was previously the case (Plotz, 1998).

This paper discusses some of the decision by the two Chief Justices, which impacted the American Justice system and continues to have effect on the same to date.

Earl Warren

As discussed in the introductory part, the Warren court went down in history as the first court to extend the fourth, fifth and sixth amendments in order to give Americans more rights, while minimizing the powers of the police.

According to Kamisar (2005), no other chief justice had a background in law enforcement like Warren having served as a deputy district attorney in the 1920’s, and later as the head of attorney’s office in Alameda County for thirteen years. After that he had been appointed the attorney general in 1939 and served in that capacity until 1942. This suggests that the critics who accused him of failing to grasp the intensity of his courts decisions were wrong.

In Gideon v. Wainright, the Warren court ruled that defendants accused of felonies also had the right to state counsel. Prior to this case however, some states had laws that required all accused people (whether charged of capital or non-capital offences) to be provided with counsel. Some states however did not have such a rule and often provided counsel for defendants charged with capital offences.

In such states, Kamisar (2005) notes that the sixth amendment was not of much help to defendants. In two later cases (Douglas v California & Griffin v Illinois), the Warren Court further stated that every defendant had a right to counsel, and further ruled that those whose cases were in the court of appeal had a right to free transcripts (Bradley, 2005).

Warren’s argument for demanding counsel for all defendants was that without proper legal advice and representation, the defendant may be denied other constitutional rights such as pretrial rights and the requirement for “proof beyond any reasonable doubt” (Bradley, 2005, p. 429).

In Upholding Miranda rights, Warren is quoted as saying “the abhorrence of society to the use of involuntary confessions turns in part of the deep rooted feeling that the police must obey the law while enforcing the law” (Kamisar, 2005, p. 23). To this end, Warren had urged the law enforcers to uphold fairness when handling people because he believed that handling people politely and intelligently would make them more cooperative towards an investigation.

According to Kamisar (2005), analysts observe that the need to streamline law enforcement and civil liberties by chief justice Warren was mainly as a result of his participation and contribution in the criminal justice system where he had earlier worked as an interrogator and also as a prosecutor. His opinion of Miranda for example thought to have borrowed largely from his understanding of the shift of balance between an isolated suspect and competent and well prepared law enforcement authorities.

William Rehnquist

Rehnquist was more conservative than Warren and though it was expected that he and his predecessor Warren E. Burger would overrule some of the controversial rulings of the Warren court, none of them did. Rehnquist for example upheld Warren’s precedent which indicated that the federal constitutions should be able to guarantee defendants of their fundamental rights during trial (Bradley, 2005).

A case in point was Crane v Kentucky, where Rehnquist supported a court decision that had ruled that the defendant had a right to introduce evidence on circumstances that led to his/her confession, if that evidence was intended to show that the confession was not worth believing or using during the court ruling.

According to Bradley (2005), the fact that Rehnquist upheld the ruling of the Warren court and even extending court rulings to provide the defendant with basic trial rights, means that he was not the “knee jerk conservative” that most people thought he would be when dealing with criminal procedure (p. 432).

Notably however, it looks like the Warren court was more willing to consider the rights of the defendant against those of the state, something that was not popular in the Rehnquist court.

According to Bradley (2005), Rehnquist was always willing to “weigh the interests if the state in convincing the guilty against the interests if the defendant and to try to reach a conclusion that comforts with his understanding of the constitution” (p. 432). During a ruling in Illinois v Gates, Rehnquist stated that the constitution suggests that judges should be balanced in their judgment rather leaning on one side.

As such, the Chief Justice stated that judges should learn to balance claims of individual rights as guaranteed in the constitution and should hence refrain from going to both extremes (Upholding individual rights or allowing claims filed by government authorities to be admissible in a trial), saying that the holding a balance between the two is the noblest thing the court can do.

While the Warren court was always in favor of the defendant especially in cases where the investigating officers use information obtained regarding the case from the defendant without upholding the defendant’s rights, Rehnquist believed that the exclusionary rule imposed a burden on the same fourth amendment values it sought to protect (Bradley, 2005).

In his arguments, Rehnquist states that evidence should not be suppressed during a trial and neither should a ruling be reversed on the basis that evidence used during the trial was not suppressed.

In Dunaway v New York, Rehnquist wrote a dissent against the 6-2 ruling that had stated that picking someone for questioning, was in real sense arresting the person regardless the names or words that police used to describe the same. It had been ruled that such was illegal especially where there was no probable cause.

Rehnquist however dissented arguing that though the detainment that occurs during such incidences could be defined as an arrest, the “arrest” definition should not be applied on all cases including where a suspect accompanies the police for questioning voluntarily.

In a 1987 ruling in Colorado v Bertine, the defendant argued that narcotics found in a backpack during a search in his impounded vehicle should be suppressed because the police did not have a warrant to search the contents of the bag and should instead have noted the backpack in the inventory.

According to the defendant, the warrantless search of the backpack contravened provisions of the fourth amendment. Making a ruling in this case, Rehnquist stated that the police had conducted the search in good faith and had hence satisfied the provisions of the fourth amendment.

Through this ruling, Rehnquist discounted the likelihood that police had violated the rights of the defendant especially because there seemed to be little evidence that police had engaged in misconduct during the search. According to McCall, M & McCall, A (2006), however, this was just a case of playing a blind eye to the police conduct especially because policemen were governed by policies that regulated how closed containers should be handled during a search.

Effects on Law Enforcement

As mentioned elsewhere in this essay, the Warren court was more proactive in upholding civil liberties to the extent that critics accused the court of taking criminal matters too lightly. Among his major critics was Rehnquist who on assuming the Chief Justice office, did nothing much to overrule the warren court rulings as many would have expected.

The effects of decisions of the Supreme Court on law enforcement cannot be understated. Not only were police departments required to come up with policy documents to regulate the conduct of the officers on duty, but the citizenry too became more aware of their rights.


To date, the Supreme Court borrows from precedents set by the Warren and Rehnquist courts among others on deliberating on issues that come before it. Currently however, the judges have to consider emerging threats such as terrorism and the emergence of wide spread use of technology while deciding on how best to balance civil liberties and law enforcement. The new challenges has given rise to the recent but highly contentious Patriotic Act that was enacted soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack (Gale, 2007).

Though initially intended for anti-terrorism intelligence gathering, critics’ state that the Patriotic act has been extended to normal investigations often leading law enforcers to ignore the need for search warrant when investigating people and in some cases, outright infringement of a person’s privacy.


Belknap, M.R & Warren, E. (2005). The Supreme Court under Earl Warren, 1953-1969. S. Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Bradley, C. M. (2005). The Rehnquist court in criminal procedure. 425-456. Web.

Gale, E. S. (2007). Balancing civil liberties with the need for effective investigation. 1-19. Web.

Kamisar, Y. (2005). How Earl Warren’s Twenty-two years in Law enforcement affected his work as chief justice. Ohio State Journal of criminal Law 3(11): 11-33.

McCall, M.M. & McCall, M. A. (2005). Chief Justice William Rehnquist: His law and order legacy and impact on criminal justice. Akron Law Review 39(323):311-372.

Plotz, D. (1998). Chief Justice William Regnquist: Mr. efficiency. Slate. Web.

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