Log In

Harry Andrew Blackmun

judge , Lawyer

Harry Andrew Blackmun was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1970 until 1994. Appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, Blackmun ultimately became one of the most liberal justices on the Court. He is best known as the author of the Court's opinion in Roe v. Wade.

Background

Harry Andrew Blackmun was born on November 12, 1908, in Nashville, Illinois, the son of Corwin Blackmun and Theo Reuter Blackmun. While he was still a child his family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Harry grew up.

Education

Upon graduation from high school, he received a scholarship from the Harvard Club of Minnesota that sent him to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard, while working a variety of jobs to meet expenses, Blackmun majored in mathematics. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1929. He considered studying medicine but determined instead to pursue a legal career, attending Harvard Law School and graduating in 1932.

Career

Once out of law school, Blackmun was admitted to the bar in Minnesota and then worked briefly as a judicial clerk for Judge Jolui B. Sanborn on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Thereafter Blackmun joined the Minneapolis firm of Dorsey, Colman, Barker, Scott, and Barber, where he practiced for 16 years in the areas of tax, estates, and general civil litigation. In addition to this practice, Blackmun taught courses at the St. Paul College of Law and the University of Minnesota Law School. Blackmun’s abiding interest in medicine found an outlet in 1950 when he became counsel for the Mayo Clinic, a position he held until 1959.

After nearly a decade at the Mayo Clinic, Blackmun was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959, replacing the judge for whom he had clerked some 17 years before, John Sanborn. On the Eighth Circuit, Blackmun earned a reputation as a hardworking and studious judge of moderate, conservative leanings.

In 1970 Blackmun became President Richard M. Nixon’s third choice to fill the seat on the Supreme Court recently vacated by Abe Fortas, who had resigned after being accused of engaging in financial improprieties while on the Court. Nixon had originally attempted to place Clement F. Haynsworth, Jr., in Fortas’s seat. Haynsworth was a judge on the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals whose nomination failed to win confirmation in the Senate by a vote of 55-45 in November 1969. Nixon subsequently nominated G. Harrold Carswell, a judge on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Senate rejected Carswell by a vote of 51-45 in April 1970, after his abilities had been questioned; Republican senator Roman Hruska of Nebraska won Carswell a footnote in Supreme Court history by insisting to the Senate that even those who are mediocre are “entitled to a little representation.” Finally, Nixon nominated Harry Blackmun on April 15, 1970. A month later the Senate, impressed with his competence and moderate conservativism and perhaps weary of confirmation battles, unanimously confirmed Harry Blackmun as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on May 12, 1970. Thereafter, Blackmun would jokingly refer to himself as “Old Number Three.”

Within a few months of this opinion, Justice Blackman retired on July 29, 1994. Nearly five years later he died on March 4, 1999, of complications suffered after hip-replacement surgery.

Achievements

  • Bar: Minnesota 1932.

Politics

Nixon’s second appointment to the Supreme Court seemed at first destined to make good the press’s reference to him and Chief Justice Burger as the “Minnesota twins,” as Blackmun voted regularly with Burger during his first year on the Court. But he gradually veered away from the chief to the left—or, as he described it, the Court veered away from Blackmun to the right. Whatever the truth is, Justice Blackmun often began to find himself in the judicial company of more liberal justices such as William Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall. A key to this transition was Blackmun’s opinion for the Court in the controversial abortion case, Roe v. Wade (1973).

The decade before the Roe decision, in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Court had recognized a constitutional right of privacy that prohibited a state from making it a crime to use contraceptives. In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Court was urged to take the controversial step of extending this right of privacy to include the right of women to obtain an abortion. The Court, speaking through Blacltmun, made precisely this step. “The Court has recognized,” Blacltmun wrote, “that a right of personal privacy or a guarantee of certain areas or zone of privacy, does exist under the Constitution. . . . This right of privacy ... is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Blackmun reasoned that the right to an abortion was a “fundamental” right, thus requiring that government demonstrate an overwhelmingly persuasive justification for any limits imposed on this right. He then considered two interests offered to justify the restrictions on abortion before the Court: first, the interest of a state in protecting the health of pregnant women; and second, the interest of a state in preserving the life of the unborn child. The essence of Blackmun’s opinion for the Court was to contemplate a typical nine-month pregnancy as consisting of three periods, or “trimesters.” He concluded that during the first trimester, the state’s interest neither in the health of a pregnant woman nor in the life of the fetus was sufficient to justify any restriction on the woman’s right to an abortion. During the second trimester, he found, a state might properly impose such restrictions as were necessary to preserve the health of pregnant women seeking an abortion. Finally, Blackmun reasoned that during the third trimester, a state had a sufficient interest in both the health of the mother and the life of the fetus to ban abortions altogether, as long as the ban did not adversely affect the life or the health of the mother.

In the years that followed, Blackmun became a symbol of odium for pro-life forces outraged at the Court’s decision in Roe and determined to unsettle it. But he remained a resolute supporter of abortion rights and pub-licly lamented the Court’s direction at the end of the 1980s, when it began to approve some restrictions on the abortion right. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), he dissented from the Court’s decision to approve some restrictions on abortions, prognosticating that a new majority on the Court was but a step

away from overruling Roe v. Wade altogether and lamenting that “the signs arc evident and very ominous, and a chill wind blows.” Three years later, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Court approved new limits on abortions while still preserving the basic right recognized in Roe. “[N]ow, just when so many expected the darkness to fall, the flame has grown bright,” Blackmun wrote of the Court’s reaffirmation of the abortion right. But four justices were prepared to overrule Roe altogether, and the aging Blackmun found this reality' profoundly disturbing. “I fear for the darkness,” he wrote, “as four Justices anxiously await the single vote necessary to extinguish the light.”

Over nearly a quarter of a century, Justice Harry Blackmun made a remarkable odyssey from being a conservative centrist to a staunch liberal. His decision fit Roe v. Wade (1973) was surely the most pronounced landmark in this journey but certainly not its only prominent feature. By the end of his tenure on the Court, Blackmun was, by some accounts, its most emphatically liberal justice. The man appointed to carry out the constitutional vision of a law-and- order president found himself at the end dissenting—alone—against the very idea of capital punishment, that jewel in the crown of law and order. In the winter of his final term on the Court, he penned a lone dissent when the Court declined to hear tire appeal of a man condemned to be executed in Texas.

Membership

Trustee Hamline University, St. Paul, 1964—1970, William Mitchell College Law, St. Paul, 1959—1974. Judicial member National History Publications and Records Commission, 1975—1982, 1986—1999. Participant Franco-American Colloquium on Human Rights, Paris, 1979.

Board directors, member executive committee Rochester Methodist Hospital, 1954—1970. Member of American Bar Association, 32 Judicial District Bar Association, Olmsted County Bar Association, Minnesota Bar Association, Phi Beta Kappa.

  • American Bar Association

  • 32 Judicial District Bar Association

  • Olmsted County Bar Association

  • Minnesota Bar Association

  • Phi Beta Kappa

Connections

He married Dorothy E. Clark in 1941, and together the couple had three daughters: Nancy, Sally, and Susan.

father:
Corwin Manning Theo

mother:
Theo

spouse:
Dorothy E. Clark

child:
Nancy Clark Blackmun

child:
Sally Ann Blackmun

child:
Susan Manning Blackmun