On matters of right and wrong, Earl Warren was not a man noticeably plagued by doubts, either in his nearly 11 years as governor of California or in his close to 16 years as chief justice of the United States. He was not a profound thinker, but he was bright, hard working and inordinately gifted in applying compassion and common sense to social issues. While it is true that he supported the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, his political arc was steadily to the left. Today, when people denounce activist judges, Earl Warren remains Exhibit A. In Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made, Jim Newton narrates Warren's story within a broad and illuminating historical context. He clearly admires his subject yet never underplays his excesses. Both early and late in his career, Warren could be petty, puritanical and politically inconsistent. Still, Newton argues, the lapses were minuscule compared to the social good the justice fostered.

Born into a blue-collar family in Los Angeles in 1891 and reared in Bakersfield, Warren worked his way through law school at the University of California at Berkeley. He was an indifferent student but a first-rate networker and a genius at remembering names and faces. With those gifts and inclinations, it was inevitable that he would enter politics. As a county prosecutor, he occasionally employed or countenanced tactics that would have made Chief Justice Warren cringe. But he was incorruptible. In the mid-1940s, he began clashing with flinty upstart Richard Nixon. They would remain adversaries until the end. Warren came to national prominence in 1948 as Thomas Dewey's vice-presidential running mate in the close contest with Harry Truman. Four years later, he lost again when Dwight Eisenhower beat him out for the Republican presidential nomination. When Chief Justice Fred Vinson died in 1953, Eisenhower tapped Warren for the post. The new chief justice's geniality, deference and diplomatic skills charmed his fellow justices ultimately to the point that he was able to achieve a unanimous decision when the court ruled in 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Eisenhower deplored the burdens this ruling put on his administration and did all he could to thwart it.

Guided more by his sense of fairness than rigorous legal interpretations, Warren went on to lead the court in landmark decisions against unwarranted police searches, malicious prosecutions, government-mandated prayer in public schools, invasions of privacy and prohibition of interracial marriages. His court also ruled that states have to provide poor defendants with lawyers and that police must inform people they've arrested of their legal rights. Warren adored John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower's successor, and was devastated when the young president was assassinated. With reluctance, he accepted the painful and controversial responsibility of leading the commission to investigate Kennedy's death.

Warren announced his retirement during the waning days of Lyndon Johnson's administration, hoping to prevent Nixon from naming his successor. But Johnson blundered, and the ploy failed. Warren died July 9, 1974, just as the tide of Watergate was starting to wash over Nixon. It was a sight he relished.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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