Justice Blackmun grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Throughout his life he wrote about himself. From the age of 10 until he was 27 he wrote daily in a diary. He also typed out hundreds of pages on his life. When he was on the Supreme Court he listed events he attended and made a chronology of significant events. He made an order of his life. I think he would have been a blogger if he were living today posting daily stories about his life.
One of his best friends was Warren Burger. They grew up 6 blocks away. It is amazing that these two boys from Minnesota ended up serving together as Justices on the Supreme Court. While previously aware they were friends I had not realized the close bond between them before they were on the Court. There were constant letters over decades in which each of them candidly expressed their deepest feelings.
When Blackmun won a scholarship to Harvard he had never been east of Chicago. In an era when flight around the world is routine it is hard to think there was a time 90 years ago when many people had not even travelled in their own country.
When Blackmun started his legal career in the midst of the Depression he actually supported his parents as his father was struggling to find work.
I think it would be doubtful he would be chosen today for the Federal Court of Appeal. As a lawyer for the Mayo Clinic his primary work was not litigation.
When he was nominated for the Supreme Court as Nixon’s 3rd choice he won swift approval. There were no obvious defects in his personality or his past or his ethics. He spent but a few hours before a Senate committee and won unanimous approval from a Senate eager to avoid another confirmation battle.
He was expected to a solid Mid-American conservative who would support Burger’s efforts as Chief Justice to move the liberal minded Court of Earl Warren to the right.
To Burger’s dismay and, ultimately at the cost of their friendship, Blackmun proved far more independent in thought and gradually became recognized as a liberal member of the Court.
He will always be remembered for being the author of the majority decision in Roe v. Wade, the most famous decision by the Court of the last 40 years. In that case Blackmun effectively created the right for women to have abortions in America.
While the decision has become personalized as Blackmun’s decision I had forgotten that he was writing for a 7-2 majority. Even noted conservative justices such as Burger supported the decision.
When he wrote the decision Blackmun was actually thinking little of a “right to abortion” for women. It was more about the doctors. He wrote:
“The decision vindicates the right of physicians to administer medical treatment according to his professional judgment up to the points where important state interests provide compelling justifications for intervention. Up to those points, the abortion decision in all its aspects is inherently, and primarily, a medical decision, and basic responsibility for it must rest with the physician.”
In subsequent decisions defending the original decision he gradually came to support a woman’s right to abortion based upon the right of privacy.
His turn to the liberal side of the Court was confirmed in the Callins decision in which he decided he would vote against the death penalty being imposed in any circumstance. In one of the most famous comments (drafted by one of his clerks which he acknowledged) of an American Supreme Court justice he said:
“From this day forward, I will no longer tinker
with the machinery of death.”
He could accept the concept of the death penalty. At its core his opposition to its imposition was based on his conviction there was no way to both properly word it in a statute and administer it justly.
By the time he retired after 24 years on the Court he had moved from being a solid conservative to a strongly liberal member of the Court.
He was a quiet humble man. Until security required a change he drove a blue Volkswagon Beetle to the Court each day.
Greenhouse, a long time reporter for The New York Times, covering the Supreme Court has written a very readable biography of an unlikely liberal icon. (Apr. 30/12)