Who was Harry Blackmun? The short answer is that he was an Associate Justice of the United Supreme Court and the author of Roe v. Wade. The slightly longer answer can be found in the 2005 national bestseller Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey. The book relies exclusively on the extensive collection of personal and official papers donated in Blackmun’s will to the Library of Congress. He left a long paper trail of his life that Linda Greenhouse weaves into a readable narrative and interesting introduction to Justice Blackmun.
Some necessary facts: Harry Blackmun was born in Minnesota and was not an extraordinary child or particularly gifted young man. His boyhood and (almost) lifelong friend was the Chief Justice Warren Burger. Burger, who after being appointed to the high court by Richard Nixon, almost immediately began to lobby Nixon to nominate the then conservative Blackmun, after two of the President’s nominations (including Greenville’s Clement Haynsworth) went up in flames. In 1970, Blackmun’s confirmation hearing lasted four hours. The Senate confirmed him 94-0.
When Blackmun arrived at the Court, he was viewed as a conservative, although Nixon’s press secretary called him a “strict constructionist.” It was another Nixon lie. The truth was that Blackmun was moderate-to-conservative man and jurist. He became the swing vote at a time when civil rights, capital punishment, and the Pentagon Papers were on the Court’s docket. Early in their long tenures, Blackmun and Burger were referred to as the “Minnesota Twins.”
Then, according to Greenhouse’s account, sometime around 1973, Harry Blackmun became himself. Greenhouse clearly believes that Roe was the pivotal moment in Blackmun’s legacy and therefore makes it the centerpiece of her story. The glimpses into behind the scenes discussions between Justices (and law clerks) as well as into the various drafts which eventually led to the 7-2 court ruling are certainly the highlight of the book. Blackmun’s fight to preserve the liberty discovered in Roe would continue until his retirement in 1994.
However, Supreme Court’s docket is full of divisive issues, and Greenhouse, using Blackmun’s notes, introduces the reader to some of the Court’s more important decisions on civil rights, capital punishment, affirmative action and homosexuality/sodomy. The book also gives a brief introduction to the other Justices, the most interesting of which is Justice Sandra O’Connor, who initially was reliably conservative.
Of course, many times, Blackmun found himself in the minority. He gave some memorable dissents, which are also highlighted by Greenhouse. One dissent noted, but not given enough space is Blackmun’s dissent in Bowers v. Hardwick, where he stated his opinion that homosexual acts by consenting adults in their home was none of the government’s business. On this issue, he was clearly ahead of the times (but not by much).
The book is not dense and moves along at the perfect pace. It is generally informative enough to satisfy a hankering for substance but on several topics it may be too shallow to quench those with a thirst for deep analysis. Nonetheless, now in paper back and at only 251 pages, Becoming Harry Blackmun is absolutely worth the investment of your time and money.