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Harry Blackmun
Justice Blackmun Official.jpg
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
June 9, 1970 – August 3, 1994
Nominated by Richard Nixon
Preceded by Abe Fortas
Succeeded by Stephen Breyer
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit
In office
September 21, 1959 – June 8, 1970
Nominated by Dwight D. Eisenhower
Preceded by John B. Sanborn Jr.
Succeeded by Donald Roe Ross
Personal details
Harry Andrew Blackmun

(1908-11-12)November 12, 1908
Nashville, Illinois, U.S.
Died March 4, 1999(1999-03-04) (aged 90)
Arlington County, Virginia, U.S.
Resting place Arlington National Cemetery
Political party Republican
Dorothy Clark
(m. 1941)
Children 3
Education Harvard University (AB, LLB)

Harry Andrew Blackmun (November 12, 1908 – March 4, 1999) was an American lawyer and jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1970 to 1994. Appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon, Blackmun ultimately became one of the most liberal justices on the Court.

Raised in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Blackmun graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932. He practiced law in the Twin Cities, representing clients such as the Mayo Clinic. In 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. After the defeat of two previous nominees, President Nixon successfully nominated Blackmun to the Supreme Court to replace Associate Justice Abe Fortas. Blackmun and his close friend, Chief Justice Warren Burger, were often called the "Minnesota Twins", but Blackmun drifted away from Burger during their tenure on the court. He retired from the Court during President Bill Clinton's administration and was succeeded by Stephen Breyer.

Notable majority opinions by Blackmun include Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, Bigelow v. Commonwealth of Virginia, and Stanton v. Stanton. He wrote dissenting opinions in notable cases such as Furman v. Georgia and DeShaney v. Winnebago County.

Early years and professional career

Blackmun was born on November 12, 1908, in Nashville, Illinois, to Theo Huegely (Reuter) and Corwin Manning Blackmun. Three years after his birth, his baby brother, Corwin Manning Blackmun Jr., died soon after birth; his sister Betty was born in 1917. Blackmun grew up in Dayton's Bluff, a working-class neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where his father owned a small store. He attended the same grade school as future Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. Blackmun was a Methodist.

Blackmun attended Mechanic Arts High School in Saint Paul, where he graduated fourth in his class of 450 in 1925. He expected to attend the University of Minnesota but received a scholarship to attend Harvard University, from which he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with an Artium Baccalaureus degree in mathematics in 1929. At Harvard, Blackmun joined Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and sang with the Harvard Glee Club (with which he performed for President Herbert Hoover in 1929, Blackmun's first visit to Washington). He attended Harvard Law School (where future Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter was among his professors), graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1932. After graduating from law school, Blackmun returned to Minnesota, where he served in a variety of positions including private counsel, law clerk, and adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota Law School and William Mitchell College of Law (then the St. Paul College of Law). Blackmun's practice as an attorney at the law firm now known as Dorsey & Whitney focused in its early years on taxation, trusts and estates, and civil litigation. He married Dorothy Clark in 1941 and they had three daughters. Between 1950 and 1959, Blackmun served as resident counsel for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He later called his time at Mayo "his happiest time" (while describing his later work on the judiciary as when he "performed his duty").

Court of Appeals

In the late 1950s, Blackmun's close friend Warren E. Burger, then an appellate judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, repeatedly encouraged Blackmun to seek a judgeship. Judge John B. Sanborn Jr. of the Eighth Circuit, whom Blackmun had clerked for after graduating from Harvard, told Blackmun of his plans to assume senior status. He said that he would recommend Blackmun to the Eisenhower administration if Blackmun wished to succeed him. After much urging by Sanborn and Burger, Blackmun agreed to accept the nomination, duly offered by Eisenhower and members of the Justice Department. On August 18, 1959, Eisenhower nominated Blackmun to the seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated by Sanborn. The American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary gave Blackmun a rating of "exceptionally well qualified". He was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 14, 1959 and received his commission on September 21. Over the next decade, Blackmun wrote 217 opinions for the Eighth Circuit. His service on the Court of Appeals ended on June 8, 1970 due to his appointment to the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court

President Richard Nixon nominated Blackmun as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court on April 15, 1970, and the U.S. Senate confirmed him on May 12, by a 94–0 vote. He was sworn into office on June 9, 1970. This was Nixon's third attempt to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Abe Fortas on May 14, 1969. His earlier failed nominees were Clement Haynsworth in September 1969 and G. Harrold Carswell in February 1970. Not since 1894, during the second Cleveland Administration, had a president had two Supreme Court nominees rejected by the Senate. This was also the longest vacancy on the court since 1873–74, during the Grant Administration – 391 days from Fortas's resignation to Blackmun's swearing-in.

While on the Court, Blackmun served as Circuit Justice for the Eighth Circuit (June 9, 1970 – August 2, 1994) and for the First Circuit (August 7, 1990 – October 8, 1990).

Early years on the Supreme Court

A lifelong Republican, Blackmun was expected to adhere to a conservative interpretation of the Constitution. The Court's Chief Justice at the time, Warren Burger, a longtime friend of Blackmun's and best man at his wedding, had recommended Blackmun for the job to Nixon. The two were often called the "Minnesota Twins" (a reference to the baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, in turn named after the "Twin Cities" of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota) because of their common history in Minnesota and because they so often voted together. Indeed, Blackmun voted with Burger in 87.5% of the closely divided cases during his first five terms (1970 to 1975), and with William J. Brennan, the Court's leading liberal, in only 13%. In 1972, Blackmun joined Burger and Nixon's other two appointees in dissenting from Furman v. Georgia, the decision that invalidated all capital punishment laws then in force in the United States, and in 1976, he voted to reinstate the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia, even the mandatory death penalty statutes. In both instances Blackmun indicated his personal opinion of the death penalty's shortcomings as a policy, but insisted his political opinions should have no bearing on the death penalty's constitutionality.

That began to change, however, between 1975 and 1980, by which time Blackmun was joining Brennan in 54.5% of the divided cases, and Burger in 45.5%. Shortly after Blackmun dissented in Rizzo v. Goode (1976), William Kunstler embraced him and "welcom[ed] him to the company of the 'liberals and the enlightened.'"

From 1981 to 1986, when Burger retired, the two men voted together in only 32.4% of close cases, whereas Blackmun joined Brennan in 70.6% of the close cases.

Split with Burger

Subsequently, Blackmun began to drift away from Burger's influence to increasingly side with Brennan in finding constitutional protection for unenumerated individual rights. Burger and Blackmun drifted apart, and as the years passed, their lifelong friendship degenerated into a hostile and contentious relationship.

From the 1981 term through the 1985 term, Blackmun voted with Brennan 77.6% of the time, and with Thurgood Marshall 76.1%. From 1986 to 1990, his rate of agreement with the two most liberal justices was 97.1% and 95.8%.

Later years on the bench

Despite Blackmun's stated personal "abhorrence" of the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia, he voted to uphold mandatory death penalty statutes at issue in Roberts v. Louisiana (1976) and Woodson v. North Carolina (1976), even though these laws would have automatically imposed the death penalty on anyone found guilty of first-degree murder. But on February 22, 1994, less than two months before announcing his retirement, Blackmun announced that he now saw the death penalty as always and in all circumstances unconstitutional by issuing a dissent from the Court's refusal to hear a routine death penalty case (Callins v. Collins), declaring that "[f]rom 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 a dissent from denial of certiorari in every death penalty case, citing and reiterating his Callins dissent.

Blackmun and his clerks then sought an appropriate case to serve as a "vehicle for [the] dissent," and settled on Callins. That the case found the dissent, rather than the more traditional relationship of the dissent relating to the case, is underscored by the opinion's almost total omission of reference to the case it ostensibly addressed: Callins is relegated to a supernumerary in his own appeal, being mentioned but five times in a 42-paragraph opinion – three times within the first two paragraphs, and twice in footnote 2.

In his dissent in Herrera v. Collins (1993), where the Court refused to find a constitutional right for convicted prisoners to introduce new evidence of "actual innocence" for purposes of obtaining federal relief, Blackmun argued in a section joined by no other justice that "The execution of a person who can show that he is innocent comes perilously close to simple murder."

Notable clerks

Blackmun's clerks included Edward B. Foley and Chai Feldblum.

Relationship with other justices

When Blackmun's papers were released at the Library of Congress, his sometimes negative notations regarding fellow Justice Clarence Thomas came to light. But Thomas spoke positively of Blackmun when he appeared in 2001 at the dedication of the Harry A. Blackmun Rotunda at the St. Louis federal courthouse, mentioning that Blackmun drove a blue Volkswagen Beetle and would tell fast food patrons that he was "Harry. I work for the government."

Blackmun and Justice Potter Stewart both followed baseball obsessively. In one oral argument on October 10, 1973, Stewart passed Blackmun a note that read, "V.P. AGNEW JUST RESIGNED!! METS 2 REDS 0." The game in question was the fifth and deciding game of the 1973 National League Championship Series, and the Mets won it 7–2, sending them to the 1973 World Series.

Post-Supreme Court

Blackmun announced his retirement from the Supreme Court in April 1994, four months before he officially left the bench, assuming retired status on August 3, 1994. By then, he had become the court's most liberal justice. In his place, President Bill Clinton nominated Stephen Breyer, whom the Senate confirmed, 87–9.

In 1995, Blackmun received the United States Senator John Heinz Award for Greatest Public Service by an Elected or Appointed Official, an award given out annually by Jefferson Awards.

In 1997, Blackmun portrayed Justice Joseph Story in the Steven Spielberg film Amistad, making him the only United States Supreme Court justice to play a judge in a motion picture.

ANCExplorer Harry Blackmun grave
Blackmun's grave at Arlington National Cemetery

On February 22, 1999, Blackmun fell in his home and broke his hip. The next day, he underwent hip replacement surgery at Arlington Hospital in Arlington, Virginia, but he never fully recovered. Ten days later, on March 4, at the age of 90, he died at 1:00 A.M. from complications from the procedure. He lay in repose in the Great Hall of the United States Supreme Court Building, and was buried five days later at Arlington National Cemetery. His wife died seven years later on July 13, 2006, at the age of 95, and was buried next to him.

In 2004 the Library of Congress released Blackmun's voluminous files. He had kept all the documents from every case, notes the justices passed between themselves, 10% of the mail he received, and numerous other documents. After Blackmun announced his retirement from the Court, he recorded a 38-hour oral history with one of his former law clerks, former Yale Law School dean Harold Koh, which was also released. In it, he discusses his thoughts on everything from his important Court cases to the Supreme Court piano, though some Supreme Court experts such as David Garrow have cast doubt on the accuracy of some of Blackmun's recollections.

Based on these papers, Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times wrote Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey. Jan Crawford's Supreme Conflict also draws heavily from the papers.

See also

  • List of justices of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • List of law clerks of the Supreme Court of the United States (Seat 2)
  • List of United States Supreme Court justices by time in office
  • United States Supreme Court cases during the Burger Court
  • United States Supreme Court cases during the Rehnquist Court
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