Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice
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When appointed to the Supreme Court in 1970 by President Nixon, Harry A. Blackmun was seen as a quiet, safe choice to complement the increasingly conservative Court of his boyhood friend, Warren Burger. No one anticipated his seminal opinion championing abortion rights in Roe v. Wade, the most controversial ruling of his generation, which became the battle cry of both supporters and critics of judicial power and made Blackmun a liberal icon.
Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice is Tinsley E. Yarbrough's penetrating account of one of the most outspoken and complicated figures on the Supreme Court. As a justice, Blackmun stood at the pinnacle of the American judiciary. Yet when he took his seat on the Court, Justice Blackmun felt "almost desperate," overwhelmed with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy over the immense responsibilities before him. Blackmun had overcome humble roots to achieve a Harvard education, success as a Minneapolis lawyer and resident counsel to the prestigious Mayo Clinic, as well as a distinguished record on the Eighth Circuit federal appeals court. But growing up in a financially unstable home with a frequently unemployed father and an emotionally fragile mother left a permanent mark on the future justice. All his life, Harry Blackmun considered himself one of society's outsiders, someone who did not "belong."
Remarkably, though, that very self-image instilled in the justice, throughout his career, a deep empathy for society's most vulnerable outsiders--women faced with unwanted pregnancies, homosexuals subjected to archaic laws, and ultimately, death-row inmates. To those who saw his career as the constitutional odyssey of a conservative jurist gradually transformed into a champion of the underdog, Blackmun had a ready answer: he had not changed; the Court and the issues before them changed. The justice's identification with the marginalized members of society arguably provides the overarching key to that consistency.
Thoroughly researched, engagingly written, Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice offers an in-depth, revelatory portrait of one of the most intriguing jurists ever to sit on the Supreme Court. Relying on in-depth archival material, in addition to numerous interviews with Blackmun's former clerks, Yarbrough here presents the definitive biography of the great justice, ultimately providing an illuminating window into the inner-workings of the modern Supreme Court.
the like. So I returned the favor. We had a lot of fun.”39 Miss Clark When Blackmun became a junior partner in 1939, his professional future seemed secure. His father’s ﬁnancial situation was still a constant source of strain. In June 1935 Corwin Blackmun was laid off from his most recent job. His employer attributed it to the general state of the economy, but Harry suspected that his father had simply “been saying too much. He has a terriﬁcally inﬂexible code of ethics, which is all very ﬁne
18, President Eisenhower acted, sending Blackmun’s name to the Senate. Burger was one of the ﬁrst to offer his congratulations, by telephone and a note. “I am delighted! So are we all!” When Blackmun received a letter attacking his nomination, Burger promptly replied, “That ‘crank’ letter is controlled by Res Ipsa Loquitur [the thing speaks for itself].” Blackmun, in turn, was grateful for the role Burger and Circuit Judge 77 Judge Sanborn had played in securing his nomination. “I cannot
disappointments, as well as the occasional triumph, in ways that the shy, insecure boy was not yet prepared to reveal to the rest of the world. Whatever his family circumstances or insecurities, Justice Blackmun would later have pleasant memories of growing up in Dayton’s Bluff. “It was distinctly lower middle class, I would say, occupied mostly by working people—they were good, solid people, but nearly all in modest circumstances. It was a good place to grow up actually.” He became particularly
that he would do his “best not to have my decisions affected by my personal ideas and philosophy, but would attempt to construe [the Constitution] in the light of what I feel is its deﬁnite and determined meaning.” He added, however, “Of course, many times this is obscure.” He had begun his response, moreover, with the observation that “this is a changing world”—an observation often made by judges who contend that they must adapt constitutional provisions to the needs of a changing society. When
think she inﬂuenced me in my decision.” To a well-connected matron, Blackmun’s decision must have seemed obvious. But Harry left the ranch for home early, anxious to determine whether attending Harvard would be at all Dayton’s Bluff to Harvard 9 ﬁnancially feasible. One day, while his father was shaving, his son asked him, “Aren’t you pleased that the scholarship has come along?” Corwin Blackmun replied, “Yes, I’m pleased but that doesn’t answer everything.” He was, the justice knew, “worried