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The Burger Court

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The Burger Court lasted from June 1969 to September 1986, during the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Warren Burger was nominated as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court by President Richard M. Nixon on May 23, 1969. Nixon became president in January 1969 and campaigned on the promise to appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Burger had a history of active participation in the Republican Party and was an advocate of strict constructionism, making him an ideal candidate for President Nixon. [1][2]

Burger was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 9, 1969, and was commissioned on June 23, 1969. This made Burger the fifteenth Chief Justice in the history of the Supreme Court. He stepped down as Chief Justice on September 26, 1986, taking on senior status.[3]

About Chief Justice Burger

Prior to joining the Supreme Court, Burger was a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 1956 to 1969. He was nominated for the court by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Previously, Eisenhower appointed Burger Assistant Attorney General of the United States, to serve as Chief of the Civil Division of the United States Department of Justice.[4]

Early in his legal career, which began in 1931, Burger campaigned for Harold Stassen, Republican candidate for Governor of Minnesota in 1938, 1940, and 1942. When Stassen attempted to secure the presidential nomination in 1948 and 1952, Burger took a prominent role in Stassen's team during the nominating conventions. It was this position that brought him to the attention of the national Republican Party.[1]

While Chief Justice, Burger was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve as Chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution. He served in this position from 1985 until 1992.[4]


Unfortunately for President Nixon, Burger's conservative philosophy did not significantly shift the composition of the Supreme Court. According to PBS, Burger's opinions "were often unpredictable and uninspiring," leading to an inability to construct a cohesive legacy.[1]

Several significant decisions were made during the Burger Court, however, including those leading to the resignation of President Nixon from the office of the presidency. Other notable cases include Roe v. Wade and Furman v. Georgia, both of which have been challenged and used as precedent in a myriad of cases.

Associate Justices

Justices in the following table served on the Supreme Court during the Burger Court.

Tenure Justice Nominated By
1937-1971 Hugo Black Franklin D. Roosevelt
1939-1975 William Douglas Franklin D. Roosevelt
1955-1971 John Harlan II Dwight D. Eisenhower
1956-1990 William Brennan Dwight D. Eisenhower
1958-1981 Potter Stewart Dwight D. Eisenhower
1962-1993 Byron White John F. Kennedy
1967-1991 Thurgood Marshall Lyndon B. Johnson
1970-1994 Harry Blackmun Richard M. Nixon
1972-1987 Lewis Powell Richard M. Nixon
1975-2010 John Paul Stevens Gerald Ford
1981-2006 Sandra Day O'Connor Ronald Reagan

Major cases

Author: Warren Burger

Vote Count: 9-0

Majority Justices: Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun

Modes of integration needed examination (1971)

Despite the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, desegregation of public schools across the nation was occurring at different speeds. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Caroilna, black students were still attending schools where the majority of students were of the same race. On April 20, 1971, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that desegregation plans should be judged based on their effectiveness by examining ratios of students. This decision also found that predominantly black schools needed to be held under close scrutiny, that interim schools set up were within court scrutiny, and that no strict guidelines could be used to determine busing.[5]
Author: Warren Burger

Vote Count: 8-0

Majority Justices: Brennan, Stewart, Marshall, Blackmun

Concurring Justices: Douglas, White

The Government cannot use surveillance without a warrant (1972)

The United States government used wiretapping and electronic surveillance to monitor three people they thought were conspiring to destroy government property and to bomb the Central Intelligence Agency. As part of this surveillance, they recorded conversations of the suspects. The government did all of this, however, without a warrant. On June 19, 1972, the Supreme Court found this was a violation of the suspects' Fourth Amendment rights. Despite issues of domestic security involved, the government still needed to obtain a warrant. The Supreme Court's decision was influenced by the idea that surveillance of this kind without a warrant could be abused.[6]
Vote Count: 5-4

Concurring Justices: Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall

Dissenting Justices: Burger, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist

Use of the death penalty is not Cruel and Unusual Punishment (1972)

Furman was convicted of murder and given the death penalty after accidentally killing someone during a home burglary. This case was heard along with Jackson v. Georgia and Branch v. Texas to determine whether or not the death penalty was Cruel and Unusual Punishment, prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. The Court decided that it was currently being administered cruelly and unusually, but that use of capital punishment did not violate the Constitution. This decision prescribed state legislatures to consider how to avoid death penalty sentences that were discriminatory. Two Justices, Brennan and Marshall, believed the death penalty was always unconstitutional.[7]
Vote Count: 7-2

Majority Justices: Blackmun (author), Marshall, Brennan, Powell

Concurring Justices: Burger, Douglas, Stewart

Dissenting Justices: White, Rehnquist

Women have the right to terminate pregnancy (1973)

When Texas resident Roe sought to terminate her pregnancy for reasons other than to save her life, Texas law forbade it. States had the authority to regulate abortions and forty-six states restricted the procedure in some way. (Only four states, Alaska, Hawaii, New York, and Washington, had no law restricting abortions.) On January 22, 1973, the Court determined that the right to terminate a pregnancy was guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment's right to privacy. This ruling gave women the ability to make the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy before "viability," a term used to refer to the first trimester of pregnancy.[8]
Author: Warren Burger

Vote Count: 8-0

Majority Justices: Douglas, Brennan, Stewart, White, Marshall, Blackmun, Powell

Executive Privilege is limited (1974)

Seven of President Richard Nixon's closest aids were indicted by a grand jury. The special prosecutor appointed by Nixon and the aids wanted to obtain audio tapes recorded in the Oval Office. However, Nixon argued that he did not have to comply with the subpoena because of "executive privilege." This case was decided along with Nixon v. United States. On July 24, 1974, the Court determined that there was a limit to executive privilege, and in this case, Nixon was surpassing the limit by refusing to give the audio tapes. As a result of the decision, Nixon handed over the tapes and documents requested and then resigned shortly afterward.[9]
Author: Warren Burger

Vote Count: 7-2

Majority Justices: Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens, O'Connor

Concurring Justices: Powell

Dissenting Justices: White, Rehnquist

Immigration and Nationality Act not constitutional (1983)

Chadha stayed in the United States with an expired visa and even admitted he was able to be deported. According to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act, Congress or the House could vote to deport someone. As a result, the House of Representatives voted without argument or recorded vote to deport Mr. Chadha. On June 23, 1983, the Court decided in favor of Chadha, saying that although the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act used by the House of Representatives could lead to efficiency, it violated the Constitution.[10]
Author: Byron R. White

Vote Count: 5-4

Majority Justices: Rehnquist, O'Connor

Concurring Justices: Burger, Powell

Dissenting Justices: Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, Stevens

Constitution does not protect sodomy (1986)

A Georgia police officer saw Michael Hardwick engaging in consensual sexual relations in the bedroom of his home, leading to an arrest on charges of sodomy. Sodomy was regulated in at least twenty-four states at that time. On June 30, 1986, the Court determined that the Constitution did not afford protection for sodomy and that states had the right to make laws against it.[11]

See also

External links