|FEATURES | summer 2005
Ms. Urgent Report
Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey
Harry A. Blackmun had only been in the Supreme Court for a few months when Chief Justice Warren E. Burger handed him a political land mine: writing the opinion for the controversial abortion case that had caused deep divisions in the country and was now before the court.
Blackmun did not know why he had been tapped for the unwelcome assignment. He had a strong medical background from his years as counsel to the Mayo Clinic, but no real interest in the abortion issue or women’s rights.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse writes in her absorbing new book, Becoming Justice Blackmun, the judge later suspected that Burger, a friend since kindergarten, assumed Blackmun would show his gratitude to his old pal by writing a narrowly focused opinion that would discharge the Court’s duty without causing further controversy or embarrassing their patron, President Richard Nixon.
If that was Burger’s expectation, the chief justice could not have been more wrong.
“Fate — and Warren Burger — had dealt him an extraordinary hand,” Greenhouse writes. “He was to be linked forever to a cause that had scarcely been his own. His concern had been medical autonomy, the ability of doctors to serve their patients according to their best judgment, without fear of criminal prosecution.”
Over the next 19 years, however, Blackmun gradually recognized that his decision had protected the rights of women, not just doctors. By the time the Court ruled on a 1992 case that reaffirmed Roe — Planned Parenthood v. Casey — Blackmun had come to fully accept that reproductive freedom was an essential part of women’s equality.
“By restricting the right to terminate pregnancies, the State conscripts women’s bodies into its service,” he wrote in his opinion.
Greenhouse, whose 25 years of incisive Supreme Court reporting won her early access to Blackmun’s archive of public and private papers, leads readers down the Court’s marble corridors and into the private chambers of nine smart, opinionated, yet very human justices.
Blackmun was wary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg when President Clinton appointed her to the Court in 1993. During an earlier appearance before the Court, Blackmun had graded her argument as a B and wrote in his notes that it was “too smart.”
She had been a critic of Roe, “not for its outcome, which she fully supported, but for its reasoning,” Greenhouse writes.
But Blackmun also worried that Ginsburg would not be able to stand up to conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she had a close friendship from their days on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Blackmun’s fears were allayed in Ginsburg’s first term when she joined his opinion in a sex-discrimination case — and Scalia offered an angry dissent.
Greenhouse paints a rare and wonderfully human portrait of one of the Court’s most extraordinary justices, a man of dogged determination who opened himself to new ideas and evolved into one of the nation’s strongest champions of women’s rights.
Discuss Becoming Justice Blackmun
Ann Blackman is a former Time magazine correspondent. Her latest book is Wild Rose: Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy (Random House, 2005).
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