Blackmun wrote the 7-2 majority decision in the controversial abortion case, Roe v. Wade (1973). In twenty-four years on the Supreme Court, he left his mark on disparate constitutional disputes involving federalism, criminal law, commercial speech, and the rights of aliens.
Blackmun was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, leaving to take his undergraduate and law degrees at Harvard University in 1929 and 1932, respectively. He had a lifelong interest in medicine and was general counsel to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota from 1950 to 1959. In 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. He was President Richard M. Nixon’s third choice for a position on the Supreme Court, winning confirmation as a justice after the unsuccessful nominations of Clement Haynsworth, Jr., and G. Harrold Carswell.
Many thought that Blackmun would reinforce Nixon’s drive to move the Court in a more conservative direction than had characterized it since the 1950’s. Initially this proved to be the case, with Blackmun generally voting to support governmental authority in criminal justice and free speech matters. He voted to support the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia
Harry A. Blackmun
Despite his early sympathy with the general police power of the state, Blackmun’s most renowned shift away from this view also came early in his Court career. In Roe v. Wade
Later in his career, Blackmun passionately dissented in the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services
Blackmun’s concern for individual rights also manifested itself early on in his majority opinion in Graham v. Richardson
In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
In general, by the 1980’s, Blackmun had firmly joined the Court’s liberal camp, often voting with Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., and Thurgood Marshall. He opposed prayer in public schools on establishment clause grounds. In Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority
Blackmun’s steady shift from moderate conservatism to judicial liberalism, conjoined with his largely pragmatic, nontheoretical approach to issues, makes it difficult to characterize his constitutional philosophy. Blackmun has been viewed as a centrist blessed with the virtue of moderation and a judicial activist bent on reinterpreting the Constitution to suit his own views. How he is characterized often varies with the constitutional philosophy of the person making the characterization.
Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004. Brennan, William J., et al. “A Tribute to Justice Harry A. Blackmun.” Harvard Law Review 108, no. 1 (November, 1994). Greenhouse, Linda Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey. New York: Henry Holt, 2005. Hair, Penda D. “Justice Blackmun and Racial Justice.” Yale Law Journal 104, no. 1 (October, 1994). Reuben, Richard C. “Justice Defined.” ABA Journal 80 (July, 1994). Rosen, Jeffrey. “Sentimental Journey: The Emotional Jurisprudence of Harry Blackmun.” The New Republic 210, no. 18 (May 2, 1994).
Alien rights and naturalization
Commerce, regulation of
Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority
Lopez, United States v.
Roe v. Wade
Webster v. Reproductive Health Services