A distinguished jurist, Warren Earl Burger was famous for his role as the 15th Chief Justice of the United States. He has the distinction of serving the longest term than any other Chief Justice, in the 20th century. His interest in politics and law started during childhood when he got hold of assorted law books and biographies of different American historical personalities. He is known to have given some revolutionary decisions, particularly on abortion, school integration, capital punishment and religious establishment. His education in law further encouraged him to take a job in law, which led him to politics, before finally culminating into a dream future. Rather than being involved with systematic application of legal principles, he was more inclined towards reforms and improvements in the justice process. In his 17-year tenure as the Chief Justice, he largely emphasized on providing improved training and education to lawyers and judges, apart from campaigning for increased salary packages for judges. Under his intellectual leadership, only criminal cases saw strong conservative views as compared to other issues where he was cautiously conservative.
Childhood & Early Life
Warren Earl Burger was born on September 17, 1907 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as the fourth of seven children, to Swiss-German immigrants Charles Joseph Burger and Katherine (Schnittger) Burger.
His father worked as a railroad cargo inspector and traveling salesman, in order to finance the needs of the working-class family. As a result, Burger started delivering newspapers when he was nine years old.
He completed his schooling from John A. Johnson High School in 1925. Being active in sports, like football, swimming, hockey and track, he was the president of the student council and wrote sports articles, published in local newspapers.
He started working as life insurance salesman, after high school, to finance his education while attending night classes for a two-year course at the University of Minnesota.
He received his degree from St. Paul College of Law (now William Mitchell College) in 1931 and began working at a St. Paul law firm, handling real estate and corporate cases. He taught contract law at his alma mater for over 12 years.
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He entered Republican politics unexpectedly and played an active role in establishing Minnesota Young Republicans, in 1934, soon after which he got involved with Harold Stassen for his governor campaign in 1938, 1940 and 1942.
His vital role in the 1952 successful campaigns for presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower landed him at the post of Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Division of the Justice Department.
Despite no experience in maritime law, he successfully supervised 180 lawyers, handling numerous cases for the government.
Seeing his efforts and hard work, he was promoted to the US Courts of Appeal for the District of Columbia, in 1956, a position he retained for 13 years.
Upon Chief Justice Earl Warren’s retirement in 1968, Burger was nominated as the new Chief Justice in 1969, by President Richard Nixon, thus becoming the 15th Chief Justice of the United States.
Just as expected, he proved to be a justice that Nixon had hoped giving decisions in numerous cases that went against Warren’s court rulings, some being Miranda vs. Arizona (1966) and Harris vs. New York (1971).
Along with the court, he led a common decision upon decreasing racial segregation in schools in the 1971 Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.
In the 1972 United States vs. US District Court, despite his disapproval of issuing search warrants in domestic surveillance cases, the Burger Court terminated all death penalty laws going against the Nixon Administration.
In the 1976 Gregg vs. Georgia case, he re-legalized the death penalty giving his vote in favor of the Court and putting the decision into action.
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Instead of applying legal principles comprehensively and systematically, he became famous for improving the entire judicial system and running the administrative functions efficiently.
Despite Nixon’s claim of improving Warren court’s decisions by Burger, none of the major decisions seemed reversed during his term, including the criminal law area where the Warren court rulings were limited instead of overturned.
He retired from his post on September 26, 1986 to work as the Chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution on full-time basis.
He took the position of the Chancellor of the College of William & Mary in 1986, which he retained till 1993.
His 1973 Roe vs. Wade became a controversial case for his support towards women’s constitutional right to get abortions and annul the law in states that penalized pregnancy.
In one of his most popular criminal cases, he exposed President Nixon in the infamous 1974 Watergate tape recordings, proving him guilty and forcing him to resign from his position before his term ended.
While shaping the country’s legal system, he started National Center for State Courts, Institute for Court Management, and National Institute of Corrections.
He began the annual ‘State of the Judiciary’ speech given by Chief Justice to the American Bar Association.
Awards & Achievements
He was honored with the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service by Princeton University’s American Whig-Cliosophic Society, in 1987.
In 1988, he became a recipient of the Sylvanus Thayer Award from the United States Military Academy, followed by the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married his fellow student from the University of Minnesota, Elvera Stromberg, on November 8, 1933. The couple had two children – Wade Allen Burger and Margaret Elizabeth Burger.
Elvera Burger died on May 30, 1994 at her home in Washington, while Warren Burger passed away from a congestive heart failure in his sleep, on June 25, 1995, aged 87.
His body was displayed in the Great Hall of the US Supreme Court Building, after which he was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.
William Mitchell College of Law has named Warren E. Burger Federal Courthouse and Warren E. Burger Library in the honor of this reputed jurist and politician.
He was one of the vice-presidential candidates, along with Ronald Reagan, John Connally and Nelson Rockefeller in 1973; however, Gerald Ford was chosen for the said position.
It was under his term that the Justices got computers to jot down their opinions in 1981, thereby making the Supreme Court one of the first fully computerized courts in the US.