Warren Burger grew up on the family farm near the edge of Saint Paul. He attended John A. Johnson High School, where he was president of the student council. He competed in hockey, football, track, and swimming. While in high school, he wrote articles on high school sports for local newspapers. He graduated in 1925.
That same year, Burger also worked with the crew building the Robert Street Bridge, a crossing of the Mississippi River in Saint Paul that still exists. Concerned about the number of deaths on the project, he asked that a net be installed to catch anyone who fell, but was rebuffed by managers. In later years, Burger made a point of visiting the bridge whenever he came back to town.
In 1937, Burger served as the eighth president of the Saint Paul Jaycees.
In this role, he first argued in front of the Supreme Court. The case involved John P. Peters, a Yale University professor who worked as a consultant to the government. He had been discharged from his position on loyalty grounds. Supreme Court cases are usually argued by the Solicitor General, but he disagreed with the government's position and refused to argue the case. Burger lost the case. Shortly after, Burger appeared in a case defending the U.S. against claims from the Texas City ship explosion disaster, successfully arguing that the Federal Tort Claims Act of 1947 did not allow a suit for negligence in policy making; the U.S. won the case (Dalehite, et al., vs. United States 346 U.S. 15 (1953)). In 1956, Eisenhower appointed him to a position on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He remained on the Court of Appeals for 13 years.
Burger's road to the Supreme Court was not direct. In 1968, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement after 15 years on the Court, effective on the confirmation of his successor. President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated sitting Associate Justice Abe Fortas to the position, but a Senate filibuster blocked his confirmation. With Johnson's term as President about to expire before another nominee could be considered, Warren remained in office for another Supreme Court term.
In 1969, President Richard M. Nixon nominated Burger to the Chief Justice position. Burger had first caught Nixon's eye when the magazine U.S. News and World Report had reprinted a 1967 speech that Burger had given at Ripon College, in which he compared the United States judicial system to those of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark:
Through speeches like this, Burger became known as a critic of Chief Justice Warren and an advocate of a literal, strict-constructionist reading of the U.S. Constitution. Nixon's agreement with these views, being expressed by a readily confirmable, sitting federal appellate judge, led to the appointment. The Senate confirmed Burger to succeed Warren, who in turn swore in the new chief on June 23, 1969. In his presidential campaign, Nixon had pledged to appoint a strict constructionist as Chief Justice.
According to President Nixon's memoirs, Nixon in the spring of 1970 had asked Justice Burger to be prepared to run for President in 1972 if the political repercussions of the Cambodia invasion were too negative for Nixon to endure. A few years later, in 1971 and 1973, Burger was on Nixon's short list of vice-presidential replacements for Vice President Spiro Agnew, along with John Connally, Ronald Reagan, and Nelson Rockefeller.
When Burger was nominated for the Chief Justiceship, many expected that the Burger Court would rule markedly differently from the Warren Court and might in fact overturn controversial Warren Court precedent. By the early 1970s, however, it became apparent that Burger was not going to turn the clock back on the rulings of the Warren Court and in fact might extend some Warren Court doctrines.
The Court issued a unanimous ruling, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971) supporting busing to reduce de facto racial segregation in schools. In United States v. U.S. District Court (1972) the Burger Court issued another unanimous ruling against the Nixon Administration's desire to invalidate the need for a search warrant and the requirements of the Fourth Amendment in cases of domestic surveillance. Then, only two weeks later in Furman v. Georgia (1972) the court, in a 5-4 decision, invalidated all death penalty laws then in force, although Burger dissented from the decision. In the most controversial ruling of his term, Roe v. Wade (1973), Burger voted with the majority to recognize a broad right to privacy that prohibited states from banning abortions before the point of viability. However, under pressure from the Reagan administration, Burger abandoned Roe v. Wade by the time of Thornburgh v. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Burger was a strong opponent of gay rights as he wrote a famous concurring opinion in the Court's 1986 decision upholding a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy (Bowers v. Hardwick), in which Burger purported to marshal historical evidence that laws criminalizing homosexuality were of ancient vintage. Chief Justice Burger pointed out that the famous legal author William Blackstone wrote that sodomy was a "'crime against nature'...of 'deeper malignity than rape,' a heinous act 'the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature' and 'a crime not fit to be named'" (106 S. Ct. at 2841).
Burger also emphasized the maintenance of checks and balances between the branches of government. In the 1983 case of Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha, he held, for the majority, that Congress could not reserve a legislative veto over executive branch actions.
On issues involving criminal law and procedure, Burger remained reliably conservative. He joined the Court majority in voting to reinstate the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia (1976), and, in 1983, he vigorously dissented from the Court's holding in the case of Solem v. Helm that a sentence of life imprisonment for issuing a fraudulent check in the amount of $100 constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Overall, Burger avoided controversy while in the Court. He often wrote only straightforward and uncontroversial opinions and avoided those in which the court was evenly split. Instead, he poured his energy into the other role of the Chief Justice, administering the nation's legal system. He initiated the National Center for State Courts , which is now located in Williamsburg, Virginia, the Institute for Court Management, and National Institute of Corrections to provide professional training for judges, clerks, and prison guards. He initiated the annual State of the Judiciary speech given by the Chief Justice to the American Bar Association. Some detractors thought his emphasis on the mechanics of the judicial system trivialized the office of Chief Justice.
Burger was the subject of internal controversy on the Supreme Court throughout his tenure. Woodward and Armstrong's The Brethren depicted Burger as a weak chief justice who was not seriously respected by his colleagues due to alleged personal eccentricity and lack of legal acumen. Woodward and Armstrong's sources indicated that some of the other justices were annoyed by Burger's practice of switching his vote in conference, or simply not announcing his vote, in order that he be able to control opinion assignments. "Burger repeatedly irked his colleagues by changing his vote to remain in the majority, and by rewarding his friends with choice assignments and punishing his foes with dreary ones. Burger would also try to influence the course of events in a case by circulating a preemptive opinion.
Burger was not seen as the best leader of the Supreme Court; the court was described as his "in name only. TIME Magazine would call him "plodding" and "standoffish, as well as "pompous," "aloof," and unpopular. Burger was a constant irritant on the Court's group dynamic, according to The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse.
Greenhouse points to the case of Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Chadha as evidence of Chief Justice Burger's "foundering leadership. Burger would cause the case to be delayed for over twenty months, despite there having been five votes to affirm the appeals court's finding of unconstitutionality after the case was argued before the Supreme Court: Blackmun, Marshall, Brennan, Powell, and Stevens. Burger did not allow an opinion to be assigned, first by asking for a special conference on the case, and then by delaying the case for reargument when that conference fell through (even though he never held a formal vote on holding the case over for reargument).
Burger retired on September 26, 1986, in part to lead the campaign to mark the 1987 bicentennial of the United States Constitution. In 1988, he was awarded the prestigious United States Military Academy's Sylvanus Thayer Award as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in 1995 of congestive heart failure at the age of 87 in Washington, D.C.. He drafted his own one-page will, which did not give the executor the power to pay debts, taxes, and administration expenses (probate, etc.; see Will), the upshot of which was that his estate was subjected to avoidable probate procedures and to substantial estate taxes. All of his papers were donated to the College of William and Mary, where he formerly served as Chancellor of the College; however, they will not be open to the public until 2026.