Warren Earl Burger was born on September 17, 1907, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He graduated from St. Paul College of Law (now called the William Mitchell College of Law) in 1931. He taught there and had a private practice. He married Elvera Stromberg in 1933, and they had a son and daughter. Future Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun was best man. In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him assistant attorney general for the Civil Division at the Justice Department, and two years later appointed him to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In 1969 President Richard M. Nixon, who had campaigned for president promising to appoint “strict constructionists” to the Supreme Court, nominated Burger to be chief justice. He was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 74–3.
Burger’s decisions cannot be easily classified as liberal or conservative. Despite the widespread expectation that he would attempt to undo, or at least limit, many of the Warren Court’s far-reaching liberal decisions, in some areas, he led the Court far beyond what the Warren Court had done. The Burger Court, for example, upheld busing as a remedy for school segregation, gave new meaning to the Equal Protection Clause in striking down a state law that discriminated against women, and held that women have a right to abortion as part of a right of privacy guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Burger’s concern for federalism shows up in several areas. He attempted to limit the application of the exclusionary rule announced in Mapp v. Ohio (1961), as well as the reach of the Miranda warnings. He was also successful in limiting access to the federal courts to appeal state court convictions. In Miller v. California (1973), he held that local or state, rather than national, community standards should be used in obscenity cases.
In perhaps his most stunning opinion, Burger held in United States v. Nixon (1974) that President Nixon (who had appointed him) had to turn over audiotapes needed in the Watergate criminal investigation. The tapes showed presidential involvement in a cover-up, and the Nixon resigned the presidency.
Burger retired from the Court in 1986 to chair the Bicentennial Commission, which oversaw the festivities dealing with the Constitution the following year. He died on June 25, 1995.
Burnett Anderson, “Warren E. Burger,” in The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993, ed. Clare Cushman (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993); Warren E. Burger, Delivery of Justice (St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1990); and Earl M. Maltz, The Chief Justiceship of Warren Burger, 1969–1986 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000).