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Harry Blackmun

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Harold Andrew Blackmun (November 12, 1908March 4, 1999) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1970 to 1994. He is best known as the author of the majority opinion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision overturning laws restricting abortion in the United States.

Harry Blackmun was born in Nashville, Illinois. He attended Harvard College on scholarship, getting a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1929. While at Harvard, Blackmun joined Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity. He attended Harvard Law School (among his professors there was Felix Frankfurter), from which he graduated in 1932, and served in a variety of positions as private counsel, law clerk, and adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota and the St. Paul College of Law. Blackmun's practice as an attorney focused in its early years on taxation, trusts and estates, and civil litigation. Between 1950 and 1959 Blackmun served as resident counsel for the Mayo Clinic. President Dwight David Eisenhower appointed Blackmun to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit on 4 November 1959. Blackmun's opinions on the circuit court level were mainly tax-related, but he wrote influential opinions about other matters, including Jackson v. Bishop (1968), which was probably the first appellate opinion to declare that physical abuse of prisoners was cruel and unusual punishment under the constitutional definition of that phrase.

On 4 April 1970 he was nominated for the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon and confirmed by the United States Senate in the same year. Blackmun's confirmation followed contentious battles over other unsuccessful nominations forwarded by Nixon that same year, those of Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell. Blackmun's nomination sailed through the Senate with no opposition on 17 May 1970.

At the time of nomination, Blackmun, a lifelong Republican was generally expected to act take a conservative and narrow interpretation of the constitution. The Court's Chief Justice at the time, Warren Burger, who had been a childhood friend of Blackmun's and for whom Blackmun served as best man at his wedding, had recommended Blackmun for the job to President Richard M. Nixon. The two were often referred to as the "Minnesota Twins" (a reference to the baseball team, the Minnesota Twins) because of their common history in Minnesota and because they so often voted together. Indeed, in 1972 Blackmun joined Burger and the other two Nixon appointees to the Court in dissenting from the Furman v. Georgia decision which invalidated all capital punishment laws then in force in the United States, and in 1976 he voted with the other six justices to reinstate the death penalty in 1976's Gregg v. Georgia, although in both instances he indicated his personal opinion of its shortcomings as a policy. Blackmun, however, insisted his political opinions should have no bearing on the death penalty's Constitutionality, and dissented in the cases consolidated with Gregg which invalidated mandatory death penalty statutes.

In 1973 he wrote the Court's opinion in the case of Roe v. Wade. This decision invalidated a Texas statute making it a felony to administer an abortion in most circumstances. The Court's judgment in the companion case of Doe v. Bolton held a less restrictive Georgia law to be similarly unconstitutional. Both decisions were based on the newly enunciated right to privacy, and remain the primary basis for legal abortion in the United States. Blackmun's opinion made him highly unpopular and a target for sometimes extreme criticism among opponents of abortion. Blackmun received voluminous negative mail and death threats over the case.

The controversial decision had a profound effect on him, and afterwards, he began to drift away from the influence of Chief Justice Burger and increasingly side with liberal Justice William J. Brennan in finding Constitutional protection for individual rights. Burger and Blackmun drifted apart, and their relationship became hostile and contentious as the years wore on.

While some say Blackmun grew more liberal over the years, he argued that instead the Court grew more conservative with the elevation of William Rehnquist to Chief Justice and the replacement of the last of the Warren Court justices.

Most notably, towards the end of his career, after joining many opinions upholding the Constitutionality of capital punishment in the United States, even dissenting from the Court's invalidation of the mandatory death penalty statutes, which completely eliminated jury discretion in capital sentencing, announced that he now saw the death penalty as unconstitutional. On February 22, 1994, he issued a dissent from the Court's refusal to consider the relatively routine death penalty case of Callins v. Collins, in which he famously wrote "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." Subsequently, adopting the practice begun by Justices Brennan and Marshall, he issued in every death penalty case presented to the Court, a brief statement reiterating his Callins dissent.

Blackmun retired from the Supreme Court in 1994 and died in 1999, from complications from hip replacement surgery.

Five years later in 2004, at Blackmun's will, the Library of Congress released his voluminous files. Blackmun had kept all the documents from every case, notes the Justices passed between themselves, ten percent of the mail he received, and numerous other documents. And after Blackmun announced his retirement from the Court, he recorded a 38-hour oral history with Yale professor Harold Koh which was also released. In it, he discusses his thoughts on everything from his important Court cases to the Supreme Court piano.

He is the only Supreme Court justice to have played one in a motion picture. In 1997, he portrayed Justice Joseph Story in the movie Amistad.


Preceded by:
Abe Fortas
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
June 3, 1970August 3, 1994
Succeeded by:
Stephen Breyer

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