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Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey

by Linda Greenhouse

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2005
ISBN: 0-8050-7791-X
Publisher: Times/Henry Holt

The life and times of a Supreme Court justice who resisted easy categorization, then and now.

On his death in 1999, writes New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Greenhouse, Harry Blackmun gave the Library of Congress his papers, “contained in 1,585 boxes that take up more than six hundred feet.” Drawing on this wealth of primary information, Greenhouse turns in a nuanced study of Blackmun as legal thinker and judge. Along the way, she offers revealing notes on Warren Burger, whose own papers are sealed until 2026; Burger, Blackmun’s childhood friend and fellow Minnesotan, helped see Blackmun onto the bench. Other Minnesotans were guarded in their support: Walter Mondale dismissed him as a conservative, and Hubert Humphrey was not enthusiastic. Blackmun gave liberal critics reason for concern, as when he dissented from the opinion allowing the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers, remarking, “The First Amendment, after all, is only one part of an entire Constitution.” (A citizen from New Jersey wrote in to say, “I thought you were a ‘strict constructionist’. . . . More a strict Nixonist.”) Yet Blackmun also took it on himself to write the Court’s opinion on Roe v. Wade, interpreting it not simply from the woman’s-choice stance but also as “primarily, a medical decision.” Blackmun had to defend Roe v. Wade for the rest of his career, as a target of those who wished to outlaw abortion entirely; he was relieved when in 1992 five justices declared that “the essential holding of Roe v. Wade should be retained and once again reaffirmed.” Greenhouse observes that their time spent together on the bench did ill for Blackmun’s friendship with Burger, whom he came to regard as a poor administrator and shallow thinker; the animosity grew in the matter of United States v. Nixon, which bitterly divided the Court. So, too, would other issues—among them, toward the end of his career, the death penalty—and by Greenhouse’s account Blackmun conducted himself well throughout them.

Detailed and well considered: a welcome study of Blackmun’s contributions to the law.