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Burger Court: Definition & Cases

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In this lesson, we will learn about the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Burger. We will identify the justices during his term and look at some of the major court decisions of the era.

Chief Justice Burger

How much influence can one man have? Well, on the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice can be extremely influential. The Chief Justice gets to choose which cases to take on appeal and determine who will write the opinion of the Court to explain the Court's decision (if he or she votes with the majority). The Chief Justice, like the other justices on the Supreme Court, is appointed for life, so he or she can serve in that role for many decades before death or retirement.

One way that we come to understand the Supreme Court at any point in U.S. history is by looking at the justices, their political ideologies, and some of the important cases heard. When Chief Justice Earl Warren retired in 1969, President Nixon appointed Warren Burger as Chief Justice. The Burger Court (the years Burger served as Chief Justice) lasted until 1986, when he retired.

Chief Justice Burger was born in 1907 in Minnesota. He practiced law for twenty years and was active in the Republican Party. In 1956, he was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals to serve as a judge on the District of Columbia Circuit. His time as Chief Justice emphasized strict construction, or a literal reading of the Constitution with limited interpretation or expansion of political power. He was a strong conservative, but he did support a few unusual policies, including busing as a solution to desegregate public schools and the decision to subpoena President Nixon for the Watergate tapes, which caused the president's resignation.

Chief Justice Warren Burger
Chief Justice Burger

A Transitional Court

The Burger Court was characterized as a transitional Court between the liberal Court under Chief Justice Warren and the far more conservative Court under Rehnquist.

When Chief Justice Burger took control of the court, Justices Hugo Black, William Douglas, William Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall (the first African American Supreme Court Justice) generally voted together on the liberal side. Often, these liberal justices were joined by moderates Potter Stewart and Byron White. For example, Justice Stewart often voted with liberals on First Amendment cases, but with conservatives on equal protection cases. The Chief Justice and Justice John Harlan were much more conservative, but Burger's personality was notoriously abrasive, which made it difficult to work towards consensus. Justice Abe Fortas was the ninth member of the court, but he retired in the same year that Chief Justice Burger took office, so technically is not part of the Burger Court. He was replaced the next year by Justice Harry Blackmun.

The Court changed composition as the years passed. Justices Harry Blackmun, Lewis Powell, John Paul Stevens, and Sandra Day O'Connor (the first woman to serve on the court) joined in the next few years. They often took a centrist (between conservative and liberal) position. Another addition was very conservative Justice William Rehnquist. When the Chief Justice retired, Justice Rehnquist was nominated by President Reagan to be Chief Justice, and the Court became much more conservative, which was reflected in its decisions.

Many important cases were decided by the Burger Court. Let's look at a few of the cases decided during Chief Justice Burger's time on the bench.

Education

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Court considered how to best implement the decision to force schools to desegregate in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (1971) held that school districts have a lot of discretion to determine how to desegregate. In this case, the region created several school districts out of different, unconnected neighborhoods in order to bring together students from black and white neighborhoods. The Court said that this was an acceptable use of the school district's authority.

The Court also heard cases on affirmative action policies in schools. In 1978, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, determined that it was acceptable for the university to use racial quotas during admission to remedy past discrimination against minority students. This decision was challenged by later Courts.

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