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Chief Justice Was Workaholic, Busy Behind The Scenes With AM-Reagan-Supreme Court

June 17, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Warren Burger, whose imposing white-maned appearance seemed the very essence of a Supreme Court justice, generally stayed aloof but his behind-the- scenes activism made him a virtual workaholic.

The deep-voiced 78-year-old jurist, who is stepping down after 17 years as chief justice, was known as an impassioned lobbyist for his pet issues, and is said to have dressed down a congressman or two when things weren’t going his way.

A keen interest in history and antiques, an appreciation for fine wines and an apparent aptitude as a sculptor and painter characterized the private side of the conservative jurist.

As chief justice, however, he apparently had little time for those pursuits. He was a workaholic by most accounts, and once clocked himself at 77 hours of work per week over a one-year period.

During one of the most volatile times of his court tenure, the Watergate days, Burger worked for 41 days straight. The time was spent preparing for court arguments over whether President Richard Nixon should be required to release the White House tapes that eventually led to his downfall. Burger ended up siding against Nixon, the president who named him to the high court in 1969.

Virtually unknown to the general public when Nixon nominated him in 1969, Burger has been busy trying to influence congressional legislation and pushing his court reform ideas, such as lessening the workload of judges and smoothing out the court system.

Once a senator accused Burger of yelling at him on the phone over legislation to revise federal bankruptcy law, which Burger opposed. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., said Burger ″told me I was irresponsible.″

Burger has been notorious for spurning the press, but could manipulate media attention when it suited his purposes. In 1975, for example, he invited reporters for a rare view of the court’s inner sanctums to publicize the new Supreme Court Historical Society, formed to collect and display paintings and other memorabilia from the court’s history.

Although he generally banned television coverage of his many speeches to groups like the American Bar Association, he was known to mail hundreds of copies of his speeches to editorial writers around the country.

In 1970, a reporter asked Burger why his camera crew couldn’t cover the chief justice’s ABA speech in Atlanta. Burger declined to discuss it, and when the reporter persisted, Burger grabbed the microphone and tried to shove it away, as the reporter told it.

Several years later, a CBS crew tangled with Burger as they tried to follow him into an elevator. A CBS videotape of the incident showed Burger’s hand reaching out to the camera as he declined to answer the crew’s questions, and then a wildly shifting scene. A lawyer who saw it said Burger reacted only after the camera hit him in the face.

Burger made his views on cigar smoking known, and remembered, in 1972. In a club car on the New York to Washington train, Burger objected to the smoking and was told to move to the tourist coach if he didn’t like it. His subsequent letter to the secretary of transportation led to a ban on pipe and cigar smoke in club cars.

The son of a railroad inspector who worked also as a traveling salesman, Burger attended night school at St. Paul College of Law while working days in an insurance office.

Burger came to Washington via Republican Party politics. In 1948, he was floor manager for Harold Stassen’s unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination. In 1952, he helped ensure Dwight Eisenhower’s nomination after Stassen again failed.

He worked as assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s civil division before Eisenhower appointed him in 1956 to the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. He served there for 13 years, until his appointment to the Supreme Court.

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