Five questions for Charles Burson



Charles Burson, professor of law at Washington University and former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, will be the final speaker at Temple Emanuel’s “Spring Stimulus Package Series.” Burson will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 26 at the synagogue, located at 12166 Conway Road.

Burson has also served as of counsel to the Bryan Cave law firm in St. Louis and as general counsel, executive vice president and secretary at Monsanto. He also was attorney general of Tennessee from 1988-1997.

His educational background includes a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, a master’s degree from Cambridge University in England and a law degree from Harvard University.


The Jewish Light caught up with Burson as he was heading down a Colorado road for a fishing trip earlier this week.

Let’s begin with a newsworthy question: What do you think of Elena Kagan, the Solicitor General and nominee to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court?

First of all I think she will make an excellent Supreme Court Justice. I worked with Elena when she and I were at the White House together. She is very bright, a tough advocate, tenacious in defending a viewpoint, all tempered with a great sense of humor and beyond reproach.

I don’t think her lack of experience as a judge should be a determinative issue. Of course those who oppose her for other reasons will throw that in. In fact many feel that the court needs justices who have a different career and life experience than that of a judge. You know our current Chief Justice had only been a judge for two years when he was nominated to be Chief Justice. It certainly was not his credential as a judge that qualified him for his current position and her not having been a judge should not be determinative of her nomination.

What about the fact that if confirmed, it will mean that the U.S. Supreme Court will be made up of three Jews and six Catholics, in view of how members of the Senate attacked Louis D. Brandeis as a Jew when Wilson nominated him for the High Court?

I think it would be an issue if she were denied this position because she is Jewish. I don’t think her religion had anything to do with her nomination. I don’t think it will be an issue in her confirmation. We have come along way since Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish justice. I am confident she will be judged on her intellect, her temperament and her character. That is why she will be confirmed and a lot of these “pseudo” issues will fade to irrelevancy.

You have quite an impressive, exciting and enviable resume. What made you decide to move to quiet old St. Louis when you could have stayed in DC where the action is?

After Al Gore won the election but not the presidency, (my wife) Bunny and I thought we would stay in Washington. She had a good opportunity with a non-profit and I was pursuing positions with a couple of law firms. I had a number of friends that told me Monsanto was searching for a new general counsel and they thought I would be a good fit. I got into the interview process and in the course of that met with the then- CEO, Hendrick Verfaillie. We met at a hotel lounge in New York over a glass of wine. He told me that depending on my answer to one question, we could either finish a congenial conversation over a glass of wine or continue my interview for the general counsel position. He then asked: “Are you and your wife willing to move to St. Louis?” We had never lived here and were looking to either stay in Washington or move back to Tennessee. I gave him the right answer when I said, “Yes” and after a few more interviews I became executive vice president and general counsel for Monsanto. That’s how we ended up in St. Louis and we both feel privileged to have become a part of this community.

Has all the “fun” gone out of politics and governmental service?

Certainly most of the civility has gone out of government service in Washington and that lack of civility has spread to similar factionalism in our state governments and in our communities when it comes to political affairs. In Washington as party dominance shifts, which it inevitably will, the new powers that be, whether Democrat or Republican, can’t resist the game of “pay back,” Whether that’s investigations, which lobbyists are to be hired, who is to be investigated, which constituencies are to be favored and which policies are to be uprooted. There is a mushrooming intolerance of differences of opinion. It’s not just positions that are questioned but more corrosively, motives. Still for those staffers in the game in Washington, I think they would say they are working hard, having fun and wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.

You served as a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention. Do you think it is time to hold constitutional conventions to revise Missouri’s Constitution and the U.S. Constitution? If not, why not, and if so, what areas would you like to see changed?

I don’t think we are anywhere near a constitutional convention for the nation. As for Missouri, I do think there are probably many things that could be accomplished by a constitutional convention. The Constitution could prohibit term limits for representatives and state senators, which I think are counterproductive to effective and efficient governance. I believe Missouri could better address its many needs with a stronger governor model. Right now I think Missouri has from a moderate to weak constitutional framework for governor.

The one thing that should not be monkied around with if there were a constitutional convention is our method of selecting judges, known throughout the country as the Missouri (Non-Partisan Court) Plan. It is perhaps the most copied method of selecting state judges throughout the country.