About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Becoming Justice Blackmun by Linda Greenhouse

22. – 654.) Becoming Justice Blackmun by Linda Greenhouse – In my previous post, a review of The Decision, I discussed the fight to prevent G. Harrold Carswell from being appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Becoming Justice Blackmun is a biography of the man, Harry Blackmun, who was nominated after Carswell’s rejection.

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)


  1. Bill - Thanks for a fascinating look at the story of a very interesting man. As you say, Blackmun did a lot of writing, but he wasn't one to call a lot of attention to himself. I'm glad Greenhouse has written this biography as Blackmun's evolution is one of the more singular in American legal history, at least in my unsophisticated opinion.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. Being a U.S. Supreme Court Justice is one of the few positions left in America where a person in authority can make decisions based on what he/she thinks is right without a personal political consequence.

  3. He sounds like a good man, standing up for people's right to choose for their own lives - I wonder if a similar decision could be made today? Thanks for the review, I enjoyed reading about Blackmum's life and attitudes.

  4. Maxine: Thanks for the comment. America has the habit of re-arguing legal issues so I expect there will continue to be abortion and death penalty cases long into the future.

  5. The women's movement in the States has always held Justice Blackmun in high regard. And his views on the death penalty were also a good contribution to justice.

    So many of us wish that issues settled decades ago, i.e., Roe v. Wade and also Civil Rights legislation signed in the 1960s as a result of the monumental Civil Rights Movement would remain so.

    It is so unsettling that these arguments are being revisited -- and with such vengeance.

    What would Justice Blackmun say? Justice Thurgood Marshall?

    Progress was made in so many areas, and it should move ahead, not backwards.

    Who would have thought?

  6. kathy d.: Thanks for the comment. Everyone must reflect carefully on whether they want a system that cannot revisit issues decided years ago. In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court accepted separate but equal treatment for African Americans. Because they were willing to return to the subject 58 years later they could reverse the decision.