Portrait of Warren Burger.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society. Warren Earl Burger
b. September 17, 1907, St. Paul, MN
d. June 25, 1995, Washington, D.C.
Fifteenth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
Warren Earl Burger grew up on the outskirts of St. Paul in a working-class family. His father was a cargo inspector for the railroads and a traveling salesman. After graduating from public high school, Burger worked for an insurance company while taking night classes at the University of Minnesota and then St. Paul College of Law (now William Mitchell College of Law). He received his law degree in 1931 and joined a local firm, specializing in corporate and real estate work, where he continued for the next 22 years. He became active in the Minnesota Republican Party, playing a significant role in the successful campaigns of Harold Stassen for governor in 1938, 1940, and 1942. He acted as floor manager for Governor Stassen in his bid for the presidential nomination at the 1948 and 1952 Republican National Conventions, and his work there gained the attention of prominent figures in the GOP.
In 1953 President Eisenhower appointed him Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Justice Department. Three years later he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where he remained for 13 years. His judicial record showed him to be cautiously conservative on most issues but strongly conservative with respect to the rights of the criminally accused. In public speeches he took a strong "law-and-order" stance, arguing that the Fifth Amendment was an impediment to justice and that the courts were far too favorable to criminals.
When Richard Nixon ran for president in 1968, he promised to put the Supreme Court back on a conservative path, and after winning the election, Nixon appointed Burger chief justice. Burger had an impeccable ethical record, and Nixon hoped he would provide the strong leadership needed to curb the Court's expansion of civil rights and civil liberties. Burger presided over the Court for the next 17 years, but he was little able to influence its judicial philosophy. Though he viewed himself as a centrist, his opinions were often unpredictable and uninspiring, and he failed to construct a clear doctrinal legacy of his own. Instead, while the Court became more rancorous and divided than it had been in many years, its decisions were remarkably consistent with its earlier judgments. Only in the area of criminal law did it become dramatically more conservative.
Often appearing remote and even unfriendly in the press, Burger was generally respected by those close to him, and he tried to steer the Court toward moderate decisions at a time of shifting national values and cultural upheavals. Among his contributions was the "contemporary community standards" test for judging obscenity (Miller v. California ). In one opinion he wrote, "Prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights" (Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart ). In United States v. Nixon (1974) he ordered President Nixon, then struggling with the Watergate scandal, to release White House tape recordings to the special prosecutor. Those recordings implicated the president and led directly to his resignation. Burger retired from the Court in 1986.