Blackmun, Harry Andrew


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Blackmun, Harry Andrew

Harry Andrew Blackmun, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1970 to 1994, stepped into a political maelstrom when he authored the much-lauded, much-reviled 1973 opinion Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147. Roe guaranteed access to safe, legal abortions for women in the first trimester of pregnancy. Depending on one's viewpoint, Blackmun was considered either a public hero or a Supreme Court villain, for authoring the opinion upholding a woman's right to privacy in the matter of abortion.

An unassuming and highly intelligent man, Blackmun seemed an unlikely symbol for an explosive social and political issue. Born November 12, 1908, in Nashville, Illinois, he spent his childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his father ran a hardware and grocery store. Blackmun was an outstanding student and received a scholarship to Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude with a mathematics degree in 1929. He went on to earn a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1932.

Blackmun's first job out of law school was a federal clerkship for Judge John B. Sanborn, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. After his clerkship, Blackmun spent 16 years practicing law in Minneapolis as a tax and trust specialist at a large, prestigious firm. In 1941, Blackmun and Dorothy E. Clark married; they later raised three children.

Blackmun also taught at the St. Paul College of Law (later renamed the William Mitchell College of Law) and at the University of Minnesota Law School. In 1950, he became head counsel at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, a position he particularly enjoyed because of a lifelong interest in medicine.

In 1959 President dwight d. eisenhower appointed Blackmun to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to replace his former boss, Judge Sanborn. While on the appeals court, Blackmun was a diligent and fair-minded judge, with a conservative outlook. A significant portion of his decisions involved tax issues.

"Abortion raises moral and spiritual questions over which honorable persons can disagree sincerely and profoundly. but those disagreements … do not now relieve us of our duty to apply the Constitution faithfully."
—Harry Blackmun

Blackmun sat on the Eighth Circuit until 1970 when President richard m. nixon appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court. Blackmun was Nixon's third choice for the Supreme Court seat formerly held by Associate Justice Abe Fortas. Earlier, Nixon had nominated clement f. haynsworth jr. and g. harrold carswell, two candidates with unconvincing qualifications. After the Senate refused to confirm either Haynsworth or Carswell, Nixon turned to Blackmun as a candidate with sterling legal credentials and a fine personal reputation. Unlike the rancorous Senate proceedings for the two failed candidates, Blackmun's confirmation hearing was quick and congenial. He was approved unanimously by the Senate on May 12, 1970.

When Blackmun joined the Supreme Court, he teamed up with his boyhood friend warren e. burger, who was chief justice. Years before, Blackmun had been best man at Burger's wedding. The two St. Paul natives were immediately dubbed the Minnesota Twins.

Blackmun entered the Court with the reputation of being a hardworking, irreproachable, and conservative jurist. During his quarter century on the Supreme Court, his reputation changed in one significant way: although he continued to be seen as hardworking and irreproachable, he was perceived less and less as a conservative.

Court observers noted that Blackmun's voting record indicated a swing to the political left. His support for civil liberties in the areas of commercial speech and the rights of Aliens, as well as his acceptance of a broadened judicial role, resulted in an alliance with liberal justices Thurgood Marshall and william j. brennan jr.

Blackmun insisted that he was merely taking a central ground on the issues before the Court. Nevertheless, in 1991, he acknowledged the change in public perception, saying, "having been appointed by a Republican president and being accused now of being a flaming liberal, the Republicans think I'm a traitor and the Democrats don't trust me. And so I twist in the wind, I hope, beholden to no one, and that's just exactly where I want to be."

Roe is Blackmun's most famous contribution as a Supreme Court justice. Writing for the seven-member majority, Blackmun ruled that women could obtain abortions without interference from the state as a matter of right under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case came about as a challenge to a Texas law (Tex. Rev. Civ. Stats. arts. 1191–1194, 1196) that made abortion illegal unless performed to save the life of the mother. The law was challenged by a pregnant woman as a violation of her right to privacy.

Blackmun held that the privacy rights of the pregnant woman outweighed the state's interest. His knowledge of medical issues is evident in the case. Blackmun based his ruling on a three-part division of pregnancy: the first trimester, when a woman can obtain an abortion and the state has no interest; the second trimester, when the state has an interest in the licensing of the performing physician; and the last trimester, when the fetus is considered viable, or capable of living outside the mother's womb, and the state's interest reaches a level where the state may restrict access to abortion. Although Blackmun earned praise for this ruling, he also became the target of protests and death threats.

In another indication of his more liberal leanings, Blackmun publicly denounced Capital Punishment in 1994. Two months before his retirement from the Court, Blackmun, who had been a strong and consistent supporter of the death penalty, announced that he had come to believe that the system for capital punishment was so riddled with bias and error as to be unworkable. "From this day forward," he stated, "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." After his retirement in April 1994, Blackmun continued to come daily to the court and go to the cafeteria for breakfast with his clerks. Blackmun died in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 1999, at the age of 90.

Further readings

Abraham, Henry Julian. 1999. Justices, Presidents, and Senators: A History of the U.S. Supreme Court Appointments from Washington to Clinton. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Barnes, Catherine A. 1978. Men of the Supreme Court: Profiles of the Justices. New York: Facts on File.

Congressional Quarterly. 1989. Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Cushman, Claire, ed. 1993. The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1993. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly.

Levy, Leonard. 1974. Against the Law: The Nixon Court and Criminal Justice. New York: Harper & Row.

Schwartz, Bernard. 1993. A History of the Supreme Court. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Cross-references

Abortion; Privacy.