THE SUPREME COURT: CHANGE AT THE TOP : Burger’s Reign Proved Less Dramatic Than Expected

Times Staff Writer

In his 17 years as chief justice, Warren Earl Burger helped steer the Supreme Court away from the active liberalism of the Earl Warren era of the 1960s. But the retrenchment proved less dramatic than many experts had expected.

“The Burger court reaffirmed many of the basic decisions of the Warren court--for example, school desegregation and school prayer--and did not overrule decisions on (defendants’ rights and police powers) but merely limited them,” said Duke law professor Walter Dellinger.

“Burger was more conservative than the rest of his colleagues, and the court would have taken a more conservative bent if his opinions had commanded a majority,” Dellinger added. “But he was not a particularly strong intellectual on the court, and his influence turned out to be more moderate.”

Image of a Chief Justice


President Reagan, announcing Burger’s resignation Tuesday, said that under Burger’s guidance, “the court has remained faithful to precedent while it sought out the (constitutional) principles that underlay the framers’ words.”

Burger, whose white-maned good looks, sober, leveling eyes and sturdy build made him the very figure of a high court justice, was nominated by former President Richard M. Nixon in 1969 to succeed Warren, who retired.

Burger’s law-and-order positions as an appeals court judge appealed to Nixon, who had sharply criticized Warren court decisions widening the constitutional rights of those accused of criminal offenses and limiting the power of police.

But as chief justice, critics said, Burger’s abrasive style hampered him as he tried to mold a court consensus. “Burger often seemed to rub people the wrong way, seemed to talk down to them,” said Yale Kamisar, professor of criminal procedure at the University of Michigan.


Called Kind and Solicitous

Colleagues who might sharply disagree with Burger on issues before the court found him kind and solicitous in personal dealings, however. One justice recalled that in 1983, when his wife was ill, Burger regularly inquired about her health and sent notes and small gifts almost weekly.

As an advocate of law and order, the Burger court voted consistently to give police greater power to conduct search and seizures of evidence and sought to reduce the lengthy appeals from Death Row prisoners. The chief justice also played a key role in scaling back the Warren court’s landmark 1966 decision that suspects in police custody must be advised of their right to remain silent and to consult a lawyer.

But conservatives have not found all the Burger court’s rulings to their liking. Particularly galling were the famous 1973 ruling that women have a fundamental right to abortions and a series of rulings that permitted continued busing for school desegregation.


In one of the most publicized decisions, written by Burger himself, the court in 1974 unanimously ordered Nixon to surrender White House tapes that proved a cover-up of the Watergate break-in. That led to the President’s resignation.

If Burger as chief justice exerted relatively little influence with his colleagues on issues before the court, he has been credited with bringing about far-reaching administrative improvements in the American judicial system.

He has frequently recommended ways to cut down on the unprecedented explosion in cases that burdened the system. And he has been outspoken on policy questions ranging from unscrupulous lawyer advertising to seeking higher salaries for judges.

As head of the federal judicial establishment, Burger has taken a highly active role in court management, pushing for streamlined court procedures and the use of modern technology to improve productivity. In his first 12 years as chief justice, Burger saw the average case-disposition rate of federal district judges improve from 285 per year to 367.


He has urged the creation of a new tribunal to take over some of the Supreme Court’s heavy caseload, though the proposal has never drawn broad support. He has also pushed hard for making prisons more habitable and for giving inmates better opportunities for work and education.

Recently, Burger relaxed his opposition to permitting televised and recorded news coverage of court proceedings.

Broadcast Coverage

For the first time, he suggested that broadcast news coverage of oral arguments before the court might be permitted if proceedings were covered live and in their entirety, with no reproduction of limited segments on radio and TV news shows.


In 1981, showing a strong dislike for bright television lights, he knocked a camera to the ground when a TV crew pursued him into an elevator.

Burger also has shown some strong off-the-bench likes--for gardening, painting and collecting antiques.