In a decade and one half as chief justice of the United States, Warren E. Burger has been a straight-talking, no-nonsense jurist. Off the bench, he has spoken out for unclogging the courts, finding alternatives to jury trials for solving disputes, and on a range of other matters from prison reforms to upgrading legal education.
He used the occasion of this week's midwinter meeting of the American Bar Association, in what has come to be known as the annual ''State of the Judiciary'' message, to take lawyers to task for sometimes shoddy advocacy, too much stress on enriching themselves and not enough on serving their clients, and a general lack of responsible professional conduct.
Mr. Burger now calls on lawyers to become ''healers of conflict'' rather than ''hired guns'' in the courtroom. The chief justice calls them as he sees them, and for this he should be commended.
There are now over 650,000 lawyers in the US - two-thirds of all the legal advocates in the world. And the litigation explosion seems to be keeping pace. Mr. Burger's voice of reason and restraint is sorely needed. So is his call to lawyers to shore up their ethics and focus more on serving the public.
The chief justice should continue to campaign for reform. His admonition that the conduct of the legal profession should be well within the law - and not on the edge of it - certainly needs to be heeded.
Also, it would be helpful if Mr. Burger took a lead in urging states to adopt a model rule of ethics that was passed by the ABA last summer after more than a dozen years of debate. If these standards are to be effective they must have legislative teeth - and that requires action by the individual states. Otherwise public confidence in lawyers and the US legal system will likely continue to sag.