Warren E. Burger

Warren E. Burger

Warren Earl Burger (September 17, 1907 - June 25, 1995) was Chief Justice of the United States from 1969 to 1986. Under his leadership, the United States Supreme Court delivered major decisions on abortion, capital punishment, religious establishment, and school desegregation. He worked hard for the adoption of modern management techniques in the nation's judicial system.

In the early 1970s, it became apparent that Burger was not going to turn the clock back on the rulings of the Warren Court, as the Court issued rulings supporting forced busing to reduce de facto racial segregation in schools and invalidating all death penalty laws then in force, although Burger dissented from the latter decision. In the most controversial ruling of his term, Roe v. Wade, Burger voted with the majority to recognize a broad right to privacy that prohibited states from banning all abortions.

Burger was a strong supporter of separation of powers and the maintenance of checks and balances between the branches of government. In 1974, he ruled against President Nixon's attempt to keep several memos and tapes relating to the Watergate scandal private, prompting Nixon to resign in order to avoid impeachment. In the 1983 case of Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, he held, for the majority, that Congress could not reserve a legislative veto over executive branch actions.

On issues involving criminal law and procedure, Burger remained reliably conservative. He joined the Court majority in voting to reinstate the death penalty in 1976, and in 1983 he vigorously dissented from the Court's holding in the case of Solem v. Helm that a sentence of life imprisonment for issuing a fraudulent check in the amount of $100 constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Overall, Burger avoided controversy while in the Court. He often wrote only straightforward and uncontroversial opinions and avoided those in which the court was evenly split. Instead, he poured his energy into the other role of the Chief Justice, administering the nation's legal system. He initiated the National Institute for State Courts, which is now located in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Institute for Court Management, and National Institute of Corrections to provide professional training for judges, clerks, and prison guards. He initiated the annual State of the Judiciary speech given by the Chief Justice to the American Bar Association. Some detractors thought his emphasis on the mechanics of the judicial system trivialized the office of Chief Justice.

Burger retired on September 26, 1986, in part to lead the campaign to mark the 1987 bicentennial of the United States Constitution. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988. He died in 1995 of congestive heart failure at the age of 87 in Washington, D.C. After his death, all of his papers were donated to the College of William and Mary where he formerly served as Chancellor of the College; however, they will not be open to the public until 2026.

He married Elvera Stromberg in 1933. They had two children, Wade Allen Burger and Margaret Elizabeth Burger. His wife died in May 1994.

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