Harry Andrew Blackmun (November 12, 1908 - March 4, 1999) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1970 to 1994. He is particularly well-known as the author of the majority opinion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision overturning laws restricting abortion in the United States.
Harry Blackmun was born in Nashville, Illinois, on the 12th of November, 1908. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932 and served in a variety of positions as private counsel, law clerk, and adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota and the St. Paul College of Law. President Eisenhower appointed Blackmun to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1959. In 1971 he was nominated for the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon and confirmed by the United States Senate in the same year.
At the time of nomination, he was generally expected to act as a conservative and narrow interpreter of the constitution. The Court's Chief Justice at the time, Warren Burger, had been a childhood friend of Blackmun's and asked Blackmun to be best man at his wedding. The two were often referred to as the "Minnesota Twins" (a pun, see Minnesota Twins) because of their common history in Minnesota and because they so often voted together. Indeed, in 1972 Blackmun joined Burger and the other two Nixon appointees to the Court in dissenting from the Furman v. Georgia decision which effectively (though temporarily) abolished capital punishment in the United States, and in 1976 he voted with the other six justices to reinstate the death penalty, although in both instances he indicated his personal opinion of its shortcomings as a policy.
In 1973 he wrote the majority opinion in important lawsuit Roe v. Wade that struck down as unconstitutional state laws against abortion and to this day is basis for legal abortion in the United States. This made him highly unpopular and a target for sometimes extreme criticism among many American conservatives, despite the fact that he was a lifelong Republican.
The controversial decision had a profound effect on him, and afterwards, he began to drift away from the influence of the Chief Justice and become more of an independent-minded justice who supported both conservative and liberal positions, with an increasing weight on individual rights.
The key turning point in his relationship with the Chief was in United States v. Nixon, the "Watergate tapes" case. The Chief Justice had assigned himself to write the decision for a unanimous Court, but the other Justices were unsatisfied with his drafts, and formed secret plans to write a counter-draft of their own. Working together, the other Justices assigned Blackmun to write the section on the facts of the case. When the Chief Justice found that the other Justices had worked in secret to steal this extremely important case from him -- and that his trusted friend Blackmun had gone along with it -- he was furious. He remained angry with Blackmun for some time, and the two drifted farther apart.
While some say Blackmun grew more liberal over the years, he argues that instead the Court grew more conservative. Towards the end of his career, after signing on to several failed attempts to reform the application of the death penalty in America, he announced that he felt the task was impossible. On February 22, 1994, he issued a dissent from the Court's refusal to consider the relatively routine death penalty case of Callins v. Collins, in which he famously wrote "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."
Harry Blackmun retired from the Supreme Court in 1994 and died March 4th, 1999, from complications of surgery.
Five years later in 2004, at Blackmun's will, the Library of Congress released his voluminous files. Blackmun had kept all the documents from every case, notes the Justices passed between themselves, ten percent of the mail he received, and numerous other documents. And after Blackmun announced his retirement from the Court, he recorded a 38-hour oral history with Yale professor Harold Koh which was also released. In it, he candidly discusses his thoughts on everything from his important Court cases to the Supreme Court piano.
The documents were quickly scoured by journalists and scholars, and provide fascinating insight into the Court's inner workings