Vital Signs

An Appointment to the Supreme Court

It was a beautiful day in May 1979 when the Georgetown University Law School held its commencement.  Honorary degrees were awarded to Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Judge John A. Danaher, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.  It was an hour with extraordinary coincidence because their lives had crossed before.

As the judges walked to the podium, my memory drifted to an earlier day, in 1961, in the office of Judge Warren E. Burger, then a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals and Judge Danaher’s colleague.

I knocked on Judge Burger’s door.  It was ajar.  “Come in, Bill,” he said.  His secretary had alerted him that I had arrived for our appointment.  I entered his private or inner office, an office that he alone used.  It had pictures of Mrs. Burger, family members, and friends in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The principal display in this office was a glass or plastic encased Medal of Honor.  “My grandfather received it at Shiloh,” he said.  “He was a drummer boy who lied about his age, so that he might join a Minnesota regiment.  At Shiloh, he survived.”  However young he was, his conduct that day merited the Medal of Honor.  Very clearly, Judge Burger cherished it and his family’s history.

The afternoon sun filled the office with comfortable light. ...

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