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Portrait of Harry Andrew Blackmun
Portrait of Harry Andrew Blackmun.
Reproduction courtesy of the Supreme Court Historical Society.
Harry Andrew Blackmun

b. November 12, 1908, Nashville, IL
d. March 4, 1999, Arlington, VA

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Harry Andrew Blackmun was raised in a working-class neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota, where his father ran a general store. He was an excellent student, and one of his childhood friends was Warren Burger, chief justice (1969-1986). Blackmun attended Harvard College on scholarship, graduating in 1929 summa cum laude in mathematics. He went on to Harvard Law School, where he got his degree in 1932. For two years Blackmun clerked with Judge John B. Sanborn of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. He entered private practice with a Minneapolis firm in 1934 and remained with it for years, dealing with such issues as taxation, civil litigation, and trusts and estates.

In 1950 Blackmun became general counsel to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, serving until 1959, when President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In 1970 President Richard Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court. A lifelong Republican, unassuming and intelligent, Blackmun had a reputation as hardworking and conservative. He was initially dubbed one of the "Minnesota Twins" because he and Chief Justice Warren Burger were so closely aligned. While Blackmun was somewhat less conservative than Burger, they agreed on more than 90 percent of the early cases they decided.

In 1973, however, Blackmun distinguished himself by writing the opinion in the controversial case of Roe v. Wade. The Court held, 7-2, that limiting or banning abortions violated a right to privacy embedded in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Blackmun spent months in the library of the Mayo Clinic researching the subject, and the resulting opinion prohibited the government from banning abortion in cases in which the fetus had not yet reached the point of viability (ability to survive outside the mother's womb), or in cases in which the birth of the fetus would endanger the life of the mother. Roe caused a firestorm among cultural conservatives, and it became an acid test for judging judicial nominees and politicians. Although Blackmun was attacked personally and received death threats for his decision, he steadfastly defended his opinion in Roe and denounced attempts by his fellow justices to weaken or reverse its findings.

The trauma of Roe had the effect of pushing Blackmun away from his conservative colleagues, and he sided more and more frequently with the liberal Justice William Brennan in granting protection to individual rights that were not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. He also articulated a libertarian view of commercial speech, granting it constitutional protection under the First Amendment.

As the Court became more culturally conservative, Blackmun was gradually isolated. Blackman and Burger drifted apart, and their lifelong friendship was splintered by hostility and recriminations. While it is often said that Blackmun became more liberal, he denied it, saying instead that the Court became more conservative. On several issues, however, he clearly changed positions, notably on the death penalty, which he had initially supported. On February 22, 1994, he issued a dissent declaring the death penalty unconstitutional under all circumstances (Callins v. Collins). He announced his retirement two months later.

John Fox, a writer and documentary film producer, was series producer of the Emmy-winning PBS series HERITAGE: CIVILIZATION AND THE JEWS. Editor-in-chief of the award-winning HERITAGE DVD-ROM, he supervised the creation of its 540-map interactive atlas of world history. He is currently writing a book about the growth of communal intelligence over the centuries.

William O. Douglas Earl Warren John Marshall Harlan II William Brennan Thurgood Marshall Warren Burger view all biographies Hugo Black Felix Frankfurter Harry Blackmun Lewis F. Powell, Jr. William Rehnquist Sandra Day O'Connor