Federal and state courts may be growing too similar, a possible threat to individual rights and to the quality of state courts, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said yesterday.

At the 57th annual meeting of the American Law Institute, Burger said signifcant changes may be taking place in the patterns of litigation in both sets of courts.

"What I ask is whether these signs meant that the federal system may be on its way to a de facto merger with the state court systems, with litigants free in most, if not all, cases to choose a federal court or a state court, depending on the condition of the dockets and depending upon what they perceive as the quality of relief they may obtain," Burger said.

In the last decade, Burger said, Congress has passed more than 70 statutes enlarging the jurisdiction of the federal courts, in some cases to encompass areas traditionally handled by the state courts.

If the two judicial systems are merging, Burger said there may be an "irreversible erosion" of the "basic principles of federalism" and a loss of interest in working to improve the state courts.

"If we are disposed to enlarge the federal court system to provide a total, or almost total, concurrence of jurisdiction, the trend unchecked is the way to achieve that result," Burger said.

"For my part, I would greatly prefer to maintain the federal courts as tribunals of special and limited jurisdiction as the Founding Fathers contemplated in 1787."

Burger called on the insitute, a legal study organization, to take another look at the allocation of jurisdiction between the state and federal courts.

"It will do us on good in 1999 to look back and conclude that a trend indeed began in the 1950s or 1960s to assimilate the two judicial systems, and that nearly two centuries of tested concepts of limited federal jurisdiction were abandoned without conscious intent," he said.