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Supreme Court Justices

Warren Burger (1907-1995)

Warren Burger was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on September 17, 1907. He was one of seven children, and made his way through college (two years at the University of Minnesota) and law school (St. Paul College of Law, now the William Mitchell College of Law) by working as an insurance salesman.

After law school, from which he graduated with honors, Burger practiced law in St. Paul for over twenty years. Burger became active in Republican politics in Minnesota during this time, and managed the failed presidential bids of Harold Stassen in 1948 and 1952. After Dwight D. Eisenhower became President in 1953, Burger became an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice. In 1956, Burger was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He remained on the Court of Appeals for thirteen years.

In May 1968, lame duck President Lyndon Baines Johnson nominated Associate Justice Abe Fortas to the position of Chief Justice, replacing Earl Warren. Fortas's nomination stalled in the Senate (see the Fortas biography for details), and the newly elected President, Republican Richard Nixon, fulfilled a promise to appoint Supreme Court Justices who were "strict constructionists" of the Constitution by nominating Burger. Burger was confirmed in mid-1969, and remained Chief Justice until his retirement after the conclusion of the October 1985 Term (summer 1986), longer than any other Chief Justice of the 20th century (Chief Justice Rehnquist has been Chief Justice longer, but his tenure spans two centuries).

The Burger Court did not roll back the Warren Court revolution (the title of one book describing this is The Burger Court: The Counterrevolution That Wasn't). Landmark decisions such as Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) Roe v. Wade (1973), Miller v. California (1973)(defining obscenity), United States v. Nixon (1974), and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978)(affirmative action) were all decided by the Burger Court. As a Justice, Burger jealously preserved the power and authority of the Court. He was not a craftsman, and his opinions are often leaden. His efforts in his opinions to "make law" often seemed strained and unimpressive (see, e.g., Lemon). 

Burger was not a leader within the Court. During his tenure as Chief Justice, about 20% of decided cases were by a bare (usually 5-4) majority. He came across poorly in The Brethren, a skin-deep tell-all by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong. He was unable to work well with his colleagues on the bench, and was castigated for assigning opinions even when he was dissenting (the Court's tradition is that the senior justice in the majority assigns the opinion). He was, by all accounts, a very competent administrator who made the Court's work more efficient. He was also a tireless promoter of judicial reform, including promoting a national court of appeals and working to increase the competence of lawyers trying cases in federal court.

Burger married Elvera Stromberg in 1933. They had two children. Burger died on June 25, 1995.

Further reading: Earl Maltz, The Chief Justiceship of Earl Warren, 1969-86 (2000); Bob Woodward & Scott Armstrong, The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court (1979).