Louis Burke, Retired High Court Justice, Dies

Times Staff Writers

Former California Supreme Court Justice Louis H. Burke, a lifelong conservative who opposed expanding the rights of criminal defendants and liberalizing obscenity standards--but voted to declare the death penalty unconstitutional--died Monday in a hospital at Fort Bragg.

Burke, 81, died eight hours after being admitted to Mendocino Coast District Hospital for treatment of a stroke.

State Supreme Court Justice Allen Broussard, acting in behalf of vacationing Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, said the court had learned of Burke's death with great sadness.

"He was thoughtful and kind and was a warm and loving human being," Broussard said. "He was an outstanding person, who will be greatly missed."

Private Practice

Born Jan. 4, 1905, in Montebello, Louis Harry Burke obtained his law degree from Loyola University in 1926. He entered private practice in Montebello the following year and almost abandoned law after his first case.

"It was a divorce," he recalled, "and the conflict and bitterness between this man and woman who once had loved each other was almost more than I could take. I made myself a promise then that if ever I could do something to alleviate such pain, I would do it. . . ."

For the time being, however, all he could do was move out of the way.

"And so," he said, "I entered the field of municipal law."

In 1928, Burke became Montebello city attorney. He said he loved his hometown and enjoyed the work but still had plenty of time--and so became general counsel for the League of California Cities, holding both posts until 1942, when he volunteered for the Army, after an unsuccessful campaign for state attorney general.

Burke was part of the first military government unit assigned to conquered areas of Germany, served as a military judge in trials of German civilians in several cities, was almost overrun during the Battle of the Bulge and left the Army as a major in 1946.

Honor Promise

On his return, he was appointed by Gov. Earl Warren to the California Veterans Welfare Board, becoming its chairman the following year, and was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1951. In 1953 he was assigned to the Conciliation Court and got his chance to honor the promise that he had made himself a quarter-century before.

"I shed my judicial cloak," he said, "and adjourned into an office to talk informally with couples--and try to learn what should be done."

The result was a 36-page document called a Reconciliation Agreement, in which he and other judges who helped design it guided couples to spell out the terms of their relationship and duties.

"For some," he said, "it is the first realization of what marriage really means. . . ."

During the 1950s, the Los Angeles Conciliation Court was considered a model for the nation.

In 1958, Burke became presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown named him to the state Court of Appeal in 1961 and to the Supreme Court three years later.

He was one of the high court's most conservative members--but not hidebound.

Majority Opinion

Burke wrote the majority opinion in 1966, when the court declared unconstitutional a ballot initiative that banned pay television.

And while he dissented from rulings expanding the rights of criminal defendants and liberalizing obscenity standards--and wrote a 4-3 decision upholding the constitutionality of the state's death penalty law in 1969--he voted with the 6-1 majority declaring the death penalty unconstitutional three years later.

He explained that he had come to believe that the death penalty was putting unbearable strains on the law. The court majority at that time, he said, would look for a way to reverse each death sentence, "so the best thing to do was get rid of it."

Burke was considered for appointment as California chief justice when Ronald Reagan was governor and for appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court during the Nixon Administration.

Retired since 1974, he had been living with his wife, Ruth, in Irish Beach, south of Fort Bragg. He had worked occasionally as a trial or appellate judge in various Northern California courts until last year.

"My wife," he explained, "considered it unseemly to try cases after I was 80. . . ."

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