Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the swearing-in of Warren Burger as chief justice of the United States. Yet only now is his underappreciated legacy coming into focus.

A chief justice is first among equals, but only one of nine votes on the Supreme Court. His influence is often wrongly assumed to be far greater than it is. But there is no denying that any tenure in that office, especially one as long as Burger’s — from 1969 to 1986 — is going to affect U.S. history in ways both obvious and less apparent but deeply profound.

The Nixon Foundation (of which I will be president and chief executive as of July 1) has now published a marvelous review of Burger’s legacy, by Jeffrey B. Morris. Morris served on Burger’s staff for five years and has taught constitutional law for six times as long.

The first of four justices appointed by President Richard Nixon, Burger — a Minnesotan — guided the “least dangerous” branch through a particularly troubled era in America and especially in its courts. Under Burger’s predecessor, Earl Warren, the high court had finally enforced the 14th Amendment’s long delayed promises of racial equality and brought focus and reform to the criminal-justice system. Yet the Warren Court would also launch a “rights revolution” that began with penumbras and emanations and ended in confusion and contention. Burger’s era coincided with a cabining of the courts’ collective power but not a retreat from it. Turning an aircraft carrier takes time. Turning the Supreme Court by whatever degree takes even longer.

A justice, and particularly a chief justice’s influence extends for generations in two ways: their “coaching tree” of former law clerks and staffers, and their opinions. Burger’s tree is extensive and includes many stars of bench, bar and classroom. Then they go on to add to the tree: For example, former federal circuit judge Michael Luttig, a Burger protégé, has himself raised up many clerks now sitting in positions of authority or on the bench.

But still we tend to focus on particular opinions, though many are unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans. One example cited by Morris: Immigration and Naturalization Service vs. Chadha, which invalidated the one-house legislative veto. In doing so, “the Court overturned more congressional enactments than it had in its whole history.” It’s a good guess that Chanda is not much discussed outside of law schools, but it changed fundamentally the direction of the American government’s evolution. Burger also authored the court’s ruling in Schick vs. Reed, “the leading case on the pardon power.” And of course, Morris writes, the decision “for which Chief Justice Burger will long be remembered” was the key case of the Watergate era: U.S. vs. Nixon.

As for relationships with colleagues, Morris writes that Burger was “limited in leading by a temperament more pugnacious than harmonizing, legal talents more executive than craftsman-like. He clearly was not as popular with his colleagues as predecessors John Marshall, Melville Weston Fuller, William Howard Taft and Earl Warren were said to have been.”

“On the other hand,” Morris writes, “Burger was less appreciated by his colleagues than he should have been for his intense interest in the facilities and personnel available to the justices for their work.”

All administrative jobs are almost by definition thankless, especially when attention focuses on substantive rulings on at least an annual basis. A justice’s career rarely turns out as one would have predicted, and many of the big cases of every June fade in importance, while the direction of the court is the key. Morris’s must-read summary proves that Burger’s navigation was equal to the difficulty of the times in which he captained the court.