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UC Berkeley Press Release

UC Berkeley launches oral history project on Earl Warren's clerks

– Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the University of California, Berkeley's Regional Oral History Office is documenting the experiences of former law clerks for Chief Justice Earl Warren, who headed the bench at the time of the ruling.

Four of the 55 former clerks still living - there were 62 clerks in all - are on the faculty at the UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall). The oral history office plans this year to interview all of the clerks who are interested in participating in the project.

In addition to the 1954 desegregation ruling, the Warren Court took numerous steps to expand civil rights, such as strengthening the individual's right to privacy, overhauling legislative apportionment, and establishing "Miranda rights" after arrest.

Warren attracted fierce criticism from conservatives during his 16-year tenure as chief justice. The John Birch Society urged his impeachment, and President Richard Nixon railed against what he called the judicial activism of the court headed by the controversial Republican, who had been a California governor and attorney general.

Warren was chosen to head a commission investigating the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and its finding of no conspiracy to kill the president remains controversial today. Warren stepped down from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969, and he died five years later.

Jesse Choper, the Earl Warren Professor of Public Law at Boalt and its former dean, proposed the oral history project to amplify existing oral history about Warren by talking with the clerks who helped him during the time he decided important cases.

The clerks, he said, can offer not readily available detail about the background of cases, significant issues that arose during deliberations about them, how cases were handled and why, and how all parties - including Warren, other justices, attorneys and staff - dealt with legal issues and one another.

The four former clerks at UC Berkeley are former Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman, who clerked for Warren in the 1958 term; Choper, who clerked in 1960; and emeritus professors Michael E. Smith and Phillip Johnson, who clerked in 1965 and 1966, respectively.

Many of the surviving Warren clerks have signed on to the project, said Laura McCreery, who is directing the project for the oral history office, a research division of UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. Interviews are underway, McCreery said, and former clerks are being asked about their individual experiences as well as about the effect of the Warren Court on constitutional law.

Two participants - one in Sarasota, Fla., and one in Bloomington, Ind. - clerked for Warren during the first term after President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him chief justice as he authored the unanimous Brown opinion banning segregation in public schools.

Funding for the histories comes entirely from private sources and is led by national law firms such as Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca, Fischer, Gilbert-Lurie & Stiffelman in Los Angeles, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering in Washington, D.C.

In the 1970s, the Regional Oral History Office completed a series of interviews on Warren's 11 years as governor of California (1943-1953), his political campaigns, his role in relocating Californians of Japanese descent to internment camps during World War II, and many other issues. Warren was interviewed the year before his death.

Warren earned an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley before earning his law degree here in 1914.

The oral history office was established in 1954. Its interviews are available in manuscript form and on audio or videotape. Selected interviews appear on the Web as part of the California Digital Library.