Warren E. Burger, 15th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, from 1969 to 1986 – that’s the name I’m dropping.
I’m going to refer to him as the “Chief” for rest of this article to give my fingers and your eyes a rest.
First time I ever saw the Chief was at the graduation of the first class of the Court Executive Development Program at the Institute for Court Management (ICM) in 1970. When he handed me my certificate I had no clue that we would cross paths a couple of dozen times over the next twenty-five years. He was handing out certificates at a ceremony held in one of the Supreme Court conference rooms in Washington because he was the driving force behind the creation of ICM and very active in the work to modernize court management.
A year or two later, working as the State Court Administrator in Michigan, I was asked to serve on a national committee that was addressing the issues of computerization of the country’s criminal justice system, most importantly the issues of privacy, including how the various components of the system (police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, courts, probation offices, etc.) could share information without sharing too much information.
As a part of that project (called Project SEARCH), quarterly meetings were held all over the country to review the work to prepare model guidelines and procedures for the state courts.
The second time I saw the Chief he was having breakfast very early in the hotel where Project SEARCH members were staying in Houston. I was dressed in tennis gear, as was my custom those days, to get in an early tennis match with some like-minded colleagues but to have a bite to eat before trying to hit a tennis ball. (Another name drop: one of the members of that tennis group was Judge Joe Wapner of the Los Angeles Superior Court, the first judge on the TV program “The People’s Court,” but not an early breakfast guy.)
The Chief sat by himself, and when I wished him a good morning he called to me: “Good morning Einar. Get something to eat and join me.”
A serious understatement: I was flabbergasted. But I recovered, filled my plate at the breakfast bar, and sat down across from the Chief.
“I heard your presentation yesterday afternoon,” he said. “Very interesting what you’re doing in Michigan.”
I thanked him and told him I didn’t know he was involved in Project SEARCH. He said he was not involved directly, but was regularly in touch with the project’s consultants and executive committee and liked to find out first hand how the project was coming along.
I apologized for my attire and asked how he could remember and pronounce my Scandinavian name so easily.
“I know some of your tennis group. I also know a few Einar’s from my days in Minnesota,” he said. “Lots of Swedes and Norwegians.”
We chatted a while, the only patrons in the hotel restaurant, and I excused myself to head for the tennis court.
Over the next several years I was privileged to join him for early breakfast several more times at SEARCH meetings and the Conference of Chief Justices and State Court Administrators. And he was an honorary member at Washington Golf & Country Club in Arlington, VA, and I got to see him at the Men’s Grill there on occasion.
Fast forward a few years and I’m with Karen, my wife of a few months, at another ICM graduation ceremony at the Supreme Court presided over once again by Chief Justice Burger. When the formalities ended the graduates and guests were invited to a reception that had been set up outside the conference room.
As my wife the lawyer and I were filling our plates with cheese, crackers, and melon balls, a voice behind me said: “Einar! Good to see you!”
I turned to greet the Chief and introduce my wife. We exchanged a few pleasantries and he deftly excused himself to greet the others.
“You know the Chief Justice?” Karen said, looking at me as if I should have mentioned something about it before. Way before.
I of course couldn’t resist and said: “We’re like this,” making the well-known gesture by holding up my snuggled together first two fingers. “Tight as can be,” I said.
The poke to my arm didn’t take very long to heal.
And I didn’t spill any food.