Harry Blackmun was involved in several important debates during
his years on the Supreme Court, which were a time of great social
and political evolution. Blackmun served under two chief justices:
Warren Burger from 1969 to 1986 and William Rehnquist from 1987
to 1994, when he retired.
Following is a snapshot
of some of Blackmun's most well known high court opinions and
v. Kuhn, 1972
Court ruling: 5-3
the court's opinion in Flood v. Kuhn, which upheld the exemption
of professional baseball from federal antitrust laws. The suit
was brought by Curt Flood, a player who challenged the league's
reserve system that bound him to one team until he was eligible
to be traded.
The decision became
a notorious one for Blackmun, an avid baseball fan, not solely
because of its legal reasoning but due to his long introduction
to the opinion where he related the entire history of baseball
in America through a sentimental lens, including lines from the
famed poem "Casey at the Bat." At one point Blackmun
revealed his admiration for legendary players by filling a page
with a list of his favorites: "Then there are the many names
... that have provided tinder for recaptured thrills, for reminiscence
and comparisons, and for conversation and anticipation in-season
and off-season. ... The list seems endless."
One of his first majority
opinions, Flood v. Kuhn hinted that Blackmun had a sentimental
side and was willing to stray from strictly formal writing in
the full text of the ruling in
Flood v. Kuhn (1972) (From FindLaw)
v. Wade, 1973
Court ruling: 7-2
Jane Roe was the pseudonym
for Norma McCorvey, a pregnant single woman living in Dallas,
Texas. Roe sought an abortion from several doctors who denied
her request because Texas state law required that abortions may
only be performed "for the purpose of saving the life of
the mother." Citing that she wished to have the procedure
and could not afford to travel into an area where it would be
legal, she filed a class action lawsuit against Henry Wade, the
state attorney general, on behalf of herself and all Texas women
in want of abortions.
Chief Justice Warren
Burger assigned Blackmun the task of writing the court's opinion.
Aided by a summer of research on the subject at the Mayo clinic,
Blackmun traced the history of abortion laws back to the Hippocratic
Oath and concluded that laws proscribing the ending of a pregnancy
in its early stages were enacted relatively recently. He cited
the precedent of previous cases upholding the legality of contraceptives
and used the right to privacy found in the Due Process Clause
of the 14th amendment to strike down both the Texas law and a
Georgia law involved in a companion case.
Writing for the court,
Blackmun held that the state may legitimately regulate abortions
because it has an interest in safeguarding the health of the pregnant
woman as well as "protecting the potentiality of human life."
These interests are able to compromise a woman's right to an abortion
only as the fetus approaches "viability," or the point
at which it is capable of surviving outside the womb. Blackmun
used a trimester framework to describe which laws restricting
abortion are allowable.
By grounding a woman's
constitutional right to obtain an abortion during the early stages
of pregnancy in the right to privacy, Blackmun's opinion subjected
all laws regulating abortion to the standard of "strict scrutiny."
The Roe decision would be revisited in 1992, in the case of Planned
Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey.
the full text of the ruling in Roe
v. Wade (1973) (From
Regents of the University
of California v. Bakke, 1978
Court rulings: 5-4 and 5-4
The 1978 Regents of
the University of California v. Bakke is a landmark case in the
debate over affirmative action programs in the United States.
The case involved Allan Bakke, a white applicant to the Medical
School of the University of California at Davis who was twice
rejected. Bakke sued, claiming that under the school's affirmative
action program, a set number of minority applicants with weaker
qualifications were accepted -- hence, he was excluded based solely
on his race. A lower court ordered his admission to the school
on the grounds that the Davis program was an unconstitutional
quota and school admissions could not legally take race into account.
The Supreme Court affirmed
that the use of race-based quotas in college admissions was unconstitutional,
but schools could continue to consider race when making admissions
decisions. Swing voter Justice Lewis Powell delivered the opinion
of the closely divided court and a total of six justices, including
Blackmun, filed opinions. The court voted 5-4 to strike down quotas
and again 5-4 to permit the use of race as a factor. In addition
to voting with the majority in to allow Davis' consideration of
race, Blackmun voted in favor of its practice of weighing the
merits of minority candidates only against one another; a program
that the courts ruled had the effect of establishing a racial
In his concurring opinion,
Blackmun anticipated a time when "an 'affirmative action'
program is unnecessary and is, in truth, only a relic of the past."
He argued that even though selective schools may consequently
deny deserving candidates admission, race is "a fact of life.
… The sooner we get down the road toward accepting and being
a part of the real world, and not shutting it out and away from
us, the sooner will these difficulties vanish from the scene."
Bakke's invocation of the Equal Protection Clause as proof that
he was a victim of "reverse discrimination," Blackmun
wrote, "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take
account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat
some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot
-- we dare not -- let the Equal Protection Clause perpetuate racial
the full text of the ruling in University
of California Regents v. Bakke (1978) (From
v. San Antonio, 1985
Court ruling: 5-4
Garcia v. San Antonio
Metropolitan Transit Authority was a critical states' rights case
and one of the few in which Blackmun assumed the role of swing
voter. Blackmun had sided with Chief Justice Rehnquist in a 1976
decision in National League of Cities v. Usery that halted the
trend of increasingly broadening the interpretation of Congress'
power to regulate interstate commerce. Though the earlier decision
restricted the federal government from interfering in "traditional"
local functions, public transportation worker Joe Garcia decided
to go to court to force his employer, the city of San Antonio,
to adhere to federal minimum wage laws.
flopped" on the states' rights issue and voted to overturn
the 1976 decision, along with the court's original four dissenters.
Writing the opinion of the court, he stated that the same 1976
decision he supported was both "unsound" and "unworkable."
The Garcia case rejected
the original argument that the commerce clause prohibited Congress
from legislating local functions that were "'traditional,'
'integral,' or 'necessary,'" deeming these qualifications
unhelpful. Blackmun concluded by asserting that our political
system inherently protects the states, and so the court was not
required to articulate definitive limits. Instead states can rely
on the "built-in restraints that our system provides through
state participation in federal governmental action. The political
process ensures that laws that unduly burden the states will not
the full text of the ruling in Garcia
v. San Antonio (1985) (From
v. Hardwick, 1986
Court ruling: 5-4
In Bowers v. Hardwick,
the Supreme Court considered a Georgia anti-sodomy law and determined
that the constitution gave no protection to consenting adults
engaging in homosexual acts in private. The case in question involved
a gay man, Michael Hardwick, who was found having sex with another
man when a police officer entered his home to inquire about an
unpaid fine for an unrelated offense. Justice Byron White wrote
the slim majority opinion, for which Justices Lewis and Powell
provided the swing votes. White found no evidence that homosexuality
was protected in the constitutional right to privacy, and wrote
that state legislatures had the right to reflect "majority
sentiments" and enact laws "based on notions of morality."
In his dissent, Blackmun
argued that the case was not just about homosexuality, but the
fundamental "right to be let alone" in one's home. In
an unusual move, Blackmun chose to read his dissent from the bench,
expressing his deep conviction on the issue. Later he told Yale
Law professor Harold Koh that it was a "bedrock opinion in
my own view, despite the fact that it was a dissent," and
thought of it as an important development in the jurisprudence
the full text of the ruling in Bowers
v. Hardwick (1986) (From FindLaw)
v. Winnebago County Dept. of Social Services, 1989
Court ruling: 6-3
one of his most impassioned dissents in the case of a 4-year-old
boy who was involved in a suit against Wisconsin social workers
for failing to protect him from his father's abuse. The court's
opinion, written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, stated that Joshua
DeShaney's 14th amendment rights were not violated when the state
officials allowed him to remain in his father's custody. Though
deeply sympathetic to his plight, the court found that "nothing
in the language of the due-process clause itself requires the
state to protect the life, liberty and property of its citizens
against invasion by private actors."
Blackmun was profoundly
moved by the young boy's plight. After being discovered as the
victim of abuse and returned to his father, he suffered a beating
so severe that he was rendered permanently brain damaged. Blackmun
opened his dissent by rejecting the notion that the court be immune
to "natural sympathy" writing, "Today, the court
purports to be the dispassionate oracle of the law."
He then argued for
the adoption of a "sympathetic" reasoning when deciding
the state's culpability for inaction, and ended exclaiming, "Poor
Joshua! Victim of repeated attacks by an irresponsible, bullying,
cowardly and intemperate father, and abandoned by respondents
who placed him in a dangerous predicament and who knew or learned
what was going on, and yet did essentially nothing." Blackmun
is often remembered for this moving dissent.
the full text of the ruling in DeShaney
v. Winnebago. (From
Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey 1992
Court ruling: 5-4
of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey represented the first major challenge
to Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion ruling that Blackmun had
authored nearly 20 years earlier. In Casey, several abortion clinics
and physicians challenged amendments made to Pennsylvania's abortion
control laws. Those requirements included informed consent, a
24-hour waiting period before the procedure, parental notification
for minors and a requirement for married women to have notified
her husband of her intention to have an abortion.
The court was closely
divided in the debate over Casey and three justices were involved
in the writing of the opinion. The court ruled to reaffirm Roe
but upheld most of the Pennsylvania requirements. It established
abortion as within a woman's "constitutionally protected
liberty," requiring that state laws not place an "undue
burden" on a woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy. The
court also overturned Blackmun's trimester framework from the
The 1992 decision
found that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting potential
life throughout a pregnancy, but it is not until the point of
fetal viability that it may enact laws that are freed from the
"undue burden" standard. In keeping with Roe, however,
the court held that all restrictions on abortion after the point
of viability must contain an exception for both the life and health
of the pregnant woman.
the full text of the ruling in Planned
Parenthood v. Casey (1992) (From FindLaw)
v. James, 1994
Court ruling: refused review
One of Blackmun's last
cases on the Supreme Court before his retirement, Callins v. James,
asked the court to reconsider Texas's use of death penalty. The
high court refused to hear the case, allowing the lower court
ruling of Callins v. Collins to stand and ordering that the execution
of Bruce Edward Callins, convicted of murder in the course of
a robbery, be carried out. After 20 years of wavering on the issue
of the death penalty, Blackmun declared in his dissent that he
was ultimately against its use: "From this day forward, I
no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death.
"For more than
20 years, I have endeavored -- indeed, I have struggled -- along
with a majority of this court, to develop procedural and substantive
rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness
to the death penalty endeavor. ... I feel morally and intellectually
obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment
has failed," Blackmun wrote.
In the 1972 case of
Furman v. Georgia, which declared the death penalty illegal, Blackmun
had joined in the dissent. It was not until the end of his time
on the Supreme Court that he clearly shifted to having reservations
about its use, culminating in the Callins case.
the full text of the ruling in Callins
v. James (1994) (From FindLaw)
By Molly Farrell, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer