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Warren Burger

Warren Burger was named in 1969 by President Richard M. Nixon as chief justice of the Supreme Court, with the expectation that he would reverse the activist orientation of the previous Chief Justice Earl Warren. In many ways he did, but not with the consistency that some conservatives would have wished.

Youth Warren Burger was born on September 17, 1907. He grew up with six siblings. At John A. Johnson High School, he wrote sports articles for local newspapers. He decided to further his education after high school.

Burger attended the University of Minnesota, then the St. Paul (Minn.) College of Law, while he worked as an insurance salesman to pay his way through.

Early career

Following graduation, Berger decided to practice law in his home town, St. Paul, where he became active in Republican politics.

It was not until 1952 that Burger became more of a public man when he attended the Republican National Convention to play a key role in the nomination of Dwight D. Eisenhower for president. At the convention, he succeeded in delivering the Minnesota delegation to the Eisenhower camp, thus becoming a valuable participant in the former general's campaign.

Following Eisenhower's election, Burger was appointed as Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice in 1953. He remained in that position until 1956, when he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. His term with the Court of Appeals lasted until May 1968, when associate justice Abe Fortas was nominated to be the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, replacing Earl Warren.

Owing to the timing of Fortas' nomination, it stalled in the Senate, and President Richard M. Nixon took the opportunity to fulfill a promise that he had made — to nominate Burger.

As chief justice Burger became the chief justice in 1969. As a conservative, he voted unexpectedly during his time in the Supreme Court in such instances as Roe vs. Wade. In that controversial case, Burger voted with the majority for the legalization of abortion, which he had previously opposed.

In addition, although Burger was a Nixon supporter, he ruled against the president in the latter's attempt to hold back memos and tapes related to the Watergate Scandal of 1974. The event led Burger to further press Nixon to resign from the presidency to avoid Impeachment.

Burger devoted much time to his administration of the nation's legal system, a duty of the chief justice. In the opinion of his contemporaries on the court, as chief executive of the nation's entire judicial system, he contributed more to its betterment than any previous chief justice.

Having been on the bench when many controversial rulings were handed down, Burger stood as a strong supporter of the separation of powers among the three branches of government, and for maintaining their checks and balances. He wrote more than 250 opinions, which included landmark decisions.

Major cases and rulings:

  • 1971: Lemon vs. Kurtzman - The court interpreted the Constitution (narrative) to mean that all laws must be secular in intent, not have a primary effect of promoting religion, nor create an immoderate government involvement with religion.
  • 1973: Roe vs. Wade - Established that laws proscribing abortion violate a right to privacy guaranteed by the Constitution (text), and nullified all state laws banning or limiting abortion.
  • 1973: Miller vs. California - The decision restated that obscenity was not shielded by the First Amendment, and created the Miller test for establishing what amounted to lewd material.
  • 1974: United States vs. Nixon - By an eight to zero vote, the court ruled that the president must surrender specified tapes and documents to the special prosecutor (during the Watergate affair).
  • 1978: Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke - The court held in a closely divided decision that race could be one of the factors considered in creating a diverse student body with university admissions decisions. The Court also held, nevertheless, that the employment of quotas in such affirmative-action programs was not allowable; thus, the UC Davis medical school had, by maintaining a 16-percent minority quota, discriminated against Allan Bakke, a white applicant.
  • On September 26, 1986, Burger retired. His term as chief justice was the longest of the 20th century. He died of congestive heart failure in 1995.