Today Jerry Brown becomes California's longest-serving governor. It is a noteworthy milepost, and one that already has been marked by press coverage on Brown, his accomplishments to date and his aspirations to cement a lasting legacy.
Not to rain on the governor's parade, but it should be pointed out that the greater significance of the day will be the 60th anniversary of the event that will allow Brown to claim his distinction.
It was 60 years ago today that Gov. Earl Warren resigned to become chief justice of the United States — an event that arguably did more to transform modern American history than anyone's ascension to any government position since.
Just six months after joining the court, Warren wrote the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education opinion that led to the desegregation of U.S. schools and, ultimately, society. In his 16 years as chief justice, the Warren Court asserted the Bill of Rights to expand civil and individual rights in a way that no court before or since has done.
Warren and Brown are the only two people to be elected to three terms as California governor.
When Warren left Sacramento on Oct. 5, 1953, less than three years into his third term, it was a departure that had been widely anticipated.
To no small degree, Dwight Eisenhower owed his presidency to Warren, who won the 1952 Republican presidential primary in California as a favorite son. At the GOP convention, Warren delivered the California delegation to Eisenhower, helping him to prevail against Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. In the fall, Warren helped Eisenhower secure a landslide win in California over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.
In his book "Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren," the California writer Ed Cray notes that, in appreciation, Eisenhower's top adviser Lucius Clay offered Warren a blank check for a federal appointment.
Cabinet posts and ambassadorships were discussed but rejected by Warren. It was then agreed that Warren, a former Alameda County district attorney and California attorney general, would be appointed to fill the first vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the summer of 1953, Warren privately agreed to accept the post of solicitor general, a position that would bolster his credentials when the moment eventually came for his Supreme Court appointment.
Before that decision could be announced, however, Chief Justice Fred Vinson died of a heart attack.
Cray writes of the circumstances in late September 1953 in which Warren, standing his ground, persuaded the Eisenhower White House to keep its commitment — even though the first vacancy unexpectedly had become the position of chief justice, rather than that of an associate justice.
With a decision still unmade, Warren headed to Ventura County to join his friend, Oxnard Supervisor Edwin Carty, on a hunting trip to Santa Rosa Island. On Sept. 25, following a prearranged plan, a Navy PT boat radioed the island that Warren was "needed back in Ventura." Warren and Carty sailed to Carty's beach home on the Rincon, where Warren placed a call to Eisenhower's attorney general, Herbert Brownell.
Biographer Cray recounts the recollection of Warren's son of his father's end of that conversation: "Yes, the agreement was for the first vacancy." (Pause) "No, the first vacancy means just that." (Pause) "No, Herb, no. The first vacancy means the first vacancy." Warren returned to Sacramento the next day, and Brownell flew on the president's plane from Washington to meet him. The two talked for more than an hour on the plane, and an agreement was reached: The job would be Warren's, but he had to agree to be in Washington within the week so that he could be sworn in on the first Monday in October, when the court opened its term.