US jurist, chief justice of the US Supreme Court 1969–86. Appointed to the court by President Richard Nixon because of his conservative views, Burger showed himself to be pragmatic and liberal on some social issues, including abortion and desegregation. It was Burger's ruling against presidential executive privilege in 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal, that forced the release of damning tapes and documents that were to prompt the resignation of Nixon.
Burger's early rulings on the Supreme Court were conservative, upholding judicial restraint, the use of non-unanimous jury verdicts, and the death penalty. However, in 1971 he backed court-ordered bussing so as to overcome state-imposed school segregation and, for the first time, applied to women the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law. The most controversial decision of the Burger-led Supreme Court was its ruling, in the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, in favour of a woman's right to abortion. Later, Burger's views in this area changed.
Burger was born in St Paul, Minnesota, and became a partner in 1935 in a law firm there. An active Republican, he was made assistant attorney general in the Dwight Eisenhower administration in 1953, and a US Court of Appeals judge for the District of Columbia in 1955. Burger became a prominent critic of the liberal ‘activist’ rulings of the Supreme Court of Chief Justice Earl Warren 1953–69, arguing that the US legal system had become dangerously tilted in favour of criminals whose convictions were being reversed on legal and procedural technicalities. His writings in favour of a strict ‘constructionist’, or literal, interpretation of constitutional law attracted the attention of Richard Nixon, elected US president in 1968, and he was nominated to succeed the retiring Earl Warren in 1969.
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