Justice Harry Blackmun,
who served on the Supreme Court for 24 years, was a soft-spoken
jurist who played a critical role in some of the modern court's
most hotly debated cases.
son of a businessman, Blackmun was born in 1908 in southern Illinois
and raised in Minnesota. One of his grade school friends was Warren
Burger, with whom he would decades later serve on the bench.
his humble beginnings, Blackmun was focused on his education,
attending Harvard on a partial scholarship that he supplemented
through jobs doing maintenance work around the university. He
received a degree in mathematics in 1929 before moving on to Harvard's
Law School. After finishing his law degree in 1932, he clerked
with the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in Missouri.
He was admitted into the Minnesota Bar
and went into private practice for the next 18 years. Blackmun
specialized in taxation, litigation, wills and estate planning,
among other areas.
Blackmun also held several academic appointments
during this time, serving as an instructor at the Mitchell College
of Law from 1935-41 and the University of Minnesota Law School
In 1950 he became resident counsel for
the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., until 1959, when
he was appointed by President Eisenhower to serve as a judge on
the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
President Nixon tapped Blackmun in 1970
to replace the resigning Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas after
two earlier nomination attempts failed. Blackmun's appointment
was overwhelmingly approved in the Senate, by a vote of 94-0.
He took his oath of office as an associate justice of the Supreme
Court on June 9, 1970.
Although appointed by a Republican president,
Blackmun showed an independent, liberal-leaning streak during
the course of his tenure on the high court.
"Like Harry Truman, Harry Blackmun
really grew in office," Time reporter Alain Sanders, who
covered Blackmun extensively, noted in the magazine upon the justice's
death in 1999.
"Early on he was viewed as second-rate,
the Minnesota twin of Warren Burger," Sanders said. "But
over time he split with the chief justice, finding his own voice
on the court."
His authorship of the 1973 landmark abortion
ruling Roe v. Wade is widely considered his most famous turn on
the high court. His position on the legalization of abortion,
a strongly divisive issue in the United States, led to an outpouring
of abuse lobbed personally at Blackmun as well as the court itself.
According to biographical sketches, Blackmun
received some 70,000 pieces of mail about the Roe decision after
it was handed down.
Blackmun's opinion in the 1978 Regents
of California v. Bakke case, which tested the limits of affirmative
action policies in higher education, is also well known.
"I suspect that it would be impossible
to arrange an affirmative-action program in a racially neutral
way and have it successful. To ask that this be so is to demand
the impossible," Blackmun wrote.
"In order to get beyond racism, we
must first take account of race," he stated.
Toward the end of his time on the high
court, he also showed his frustration with the use of the death
penalty, calling the practice of capital punishment a failed experiment.
"From this day forward, I no longer
shall tinker with the machinery of death," is an oft-quoted
piece of a dissent Blackmun wrote in response to a 1994 Supreme
Court decision denying a review of a Texas death penalty case.
Blackmun has been often called a compassionate
voice for the oppressed, a reflection of his consistent concern
for those underrepresented in society. In one example, he proclaimed
"Poor Joshua!" in a 1989 dissent on a case involving
an abused child and the duties of child protective services.
"It is a sad commentary upon American
life, and constitutional principles ... that this child, Joshua
DeShaney, now is assigned to live out the remainder of his life
profoundly retarded," Blackmun wrote.
A Civil War buff and baseball fan, the
justice was known for driving a bright blue Volkswagen beetle
to the high court during his early years on the bench. Blackmun's
former law clerks have described him in published accounts as
humble and polite, never lacking a kind word for any member of
the high court's staff.
Blackmun retired from the high court in
1994 and was replaced by Justice Stephen Breyer.
to Dorothy Clark in 1941, Blackmun had three children. He died
in 1999 from complications due to surgery at the age of 90.
By Maureen Hoch, Online NewsHour