Justice Blackmun Resignation Annoucement

ROBERT MACNEIL: The legacy of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and a look at possible successors is our lead story tonight. We'll talk to legal scholars and observers of the court, but we begin with the resignation announcement at the White House.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: When President Nixon nominated Harry Blackmun for service on the court, his candidacy naturally occasioned a great deal of speculation about what kind of Justice he would be. Some labeled him "strict constructionist." But he rejected any attempt to tag him with a label, saying, "I've been called liberal and conservative. Labels are deceiving. I call them as I see them." Twenty-four years later we can say that he did exactly what he said he would do 24 years ago.

RITA BRAVER, CBS News: Could you say a few words about the decision in Roe vs. Wade and about why you think it's been important for women in this country, your continued commitment to it, and where you think the court might be headed on that.

HARRY BLACKMUN, U.S. Supreme Court Justice: Well, I didn't come in here to indulge in a question and answer session, but I'll, I'll try to answer that. Roe against Wade hit me early in my tenure on the Supreme Court, and people forget that it was a seven to two decision. They always typify it as a Blackmun opinion. But I'll say what I've said and many times publicly. I think it was right in 1973, and I think it was right today. It's a step that had to be taken as we go down the road toward the full emancipation of women.

BRIT HUME, ABC News: Mr. President, I think you've have some advance warning that this might be coming. Could you give us some sense of how much opportunity you've had to get your process started and how far along it might be.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Justice Blackmun referred in his letter to a conversation we had several months ago indicating that he might or that he intended to, to leave at some time during this year, or announce his intention. I frankly kept hoping he would change his mind, but I think we are prepared, and I think we will proceed forthwith.

MR. MACNEIL: Later in the day, Justice Blackmun spoke to reporters at the Supreme Court.

HARRY BLACKMUN, U.S. Supreme Court Justice: Having the privilege to be here I think sitting with 15 members of the court that's, that's a fair number out of what, 110 I think it is that have served here since 1790, and we've all been very kind during that period.

We haven't had any of the disputes that used to prevail now and then both on the bench and off the bench when Justice A wouldn't shake hands with Justice B and that sort of thing. We haven't had that. There have been moments of tension of course. The nine of us come from different backgrounds and have different personal biases and all that kind of thing. But I think that's, that's what the court is all about, and the tension builds up, but it, it gets dispelled now and then. It's been interesting over the years. I'll never forget the first day that I, I came here.

This would be June, June 9, 1970. And after being sworn in, and I was escorted into the robing room where the Justices had gathered, and there were Bill Douglas and Bill Brennan and John Harlan and Hugo Black, Hugo of all people, and the inevitable question dawned on me, and I hope it dawns on everybody else when he comes here, and that is: What am I doing here? I'll take a couple of questions, if there are any.

REPORTER: Why now? Why now? Can you tell me why now?

JUSTICE BLACKMUN: Well, I've been thinking about it all year, and as my letters to my colleagues and to the President indicated, some months ago — and by that I don't mean two, I mean a lot of months ago — I advised both the President and the Chief Justice that this would be my last term.

I think part of it is the realization of the number of years — 85 — that's an awful lot of years — and I don't want to be — to reach a point where my senility level reaches unacceptable proportions, and I don't want to be asked to retire as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was, and to his great credit moved in a minute.

I don't want to set any records, and I suspect a lot of people feel that I've been here too long. Judging from the mail, why there are a lot of them out there that say that. And — but I think it's a good time when I'm still feeling all right when I will think anyway that my work output is still acceptable. I hope that's the case.

REPORTER: Justice Blackmun, I am authorized to ask you this question: How sharp has the debate been this year over the death penalty on the bench, and did it weigh it all in the decision to retire this year?

JUSTICE BLACKMUN: Actually we haven't discussed it all, which is true of a lot of things, but I've been chafing it a little bit for some time, as the rest of the court knows, about the death penalty, and when I issued that dissent in the Collins case not too long ago, it didn't create any ripples within the court. One of the Justices called me, and I don't think I should say this, but he said, I'm, I'm very proud of you for taking that position.

And, no, it didn't weigh at all in my decision to step down now as distinguished from next year or otherwise. I'm glad I was able to, to catch the Collins case. I thought it was an ideal vehicle to express my opposition to the death penalty. I'm completely satisfied with my decision there, and I am glad that the opportunity came along before today came along.

Thanks again for being so kind.