The Surprising Justice Blackmun

On this day in 1970, the US Senate confirms President Richard M. Nixon’s nomination of Federal Circuit Judge Harry A. Blackmun to the US Supreme Court. Known principally for his lead opinion in the landmark ruling of Roe v. Wade, Blackmun served for 24 years on the SCOTUS with a string of equally surprising holdings.

Harry Andrew Blackmun was born on November 12, 1908, in Nashville, Illinois; his father worked as a hardware store manager at one point, while his mother was a musician, helping to bestow upon the young Blackmun a lifelong love of music. He also befriended Warren Burger, a schoolmate and fellow paperboy whom he would one day work with as a fellow Justice.

Matriculating toward a mathematics degree from Harvard on a scholarship, Blackmun graduated summa cum laude and went on to graduate from law school there in 1932. He then worked in an appeals-court clerkship in Minnesota, later going on to teach at what is now William Mitchell College of Law and then to a private practice law firm. In 1950 he became general counsel for the Mayo Clinic, able to professionally indulge in his passion for medicine, working in that position for nearly a decade.

Blackmun was appointed by President Eisenhower to the bench of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1959, and got the nod from Nixon in 1970 to replace the departing Justice Abe Fortas. Unanimously confirmed and impeccably credentialed, Blackmun sailed onto the court thought to be a reliable conservative, only to shock the planet with the Roe decision.

Blackmun became an increasingly liberal force on the court, advocating for affirmative action, the poor, and immigrants’ rights. While reviled by many anti-abortion agitators, Blackmun was also revered by women’s rights groups, and went on to have more female law clerks on his staff than the rest of the justices on the court combined. A few months before his retirement, he opposed the use of the death penalty. Blackmun was noted to be a highly intelligent, modest judge who was fit, and had a keen knack for humor, at turns displaying emotion and cultural interests in his writings.

Blackmun retired at the age of 85 in 1994; he died on March 4, 1999, at 90 years of age, after complications from hip surgery. He had donated his papers to the Library of Congress in 1997, and they were made available to the public in 2004.

Using the Epstein-Walker data-base, Blackmun’s score of 59.88% places him on the moderate to liberal side of all justices sitting since the 1946 term.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

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