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Harry A. Blackmun, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court


  • Born: Nov. 12, 1908, Nashville, Ill 
  • Educated: Harvard University (mathematics), 1929, Harvard Law School, 1932 
  • Married: June 21, 1941 to Dorothy Clark 
  • Nominated: April 14, 1970, by President Richard M. Nixon 
  • Confirmed: May 12, 1970 
  • Dates of Service: June 9, 1970, to Aug. 3, 1994 
  • Died: March 4, 1999, Arlington, VA.

Nominated to the Supreme Court after President Nixon's first two choices were rejected by the Senate (Clement Haynesworth and Harold Carswell), Justice Blackmun reputedly said being picked third kept him humble. He was recommended to the president by Chief Justice Warren Burger, a childhood friend, and was heralded by Nixon as a "strict constructionist" when plucked from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals where he had served for 11 years. Prior to that he was resident counsel for the Mayo Clinic and Mayo Association for nine years.

In grappling with the issues that came before the court, Blackmun evolved an understanding of "the great phrases" of the U.S. Constitution that drew him a long way from his beginnings. "What does equal protection mean? What is cruel and unusual punishment? I would hope that I have grown in that respect over the years. But as far as shifting from conservatism to liberalism, I don't believe I have done that."

Blackmun is best known as the author of the 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade that extended the right of privacy in reproductive matters to the decision of women whether to carry a pregnancy to term. Although joined in by six other members of the court, the abortion rights decision brought Blackmun criticism and threats, none of which he ducked. Rather he pressed on his fellow jurists to understand the consequences of their rulings and deal with their real-world effects.

Blackmun's role on an increasingly conservative court often left him in the minority on opinions later in his career. He was the sole dissenting justice from a ruling that Haitian refugees could be intercepted in their boats and forcibly returned to their country without a hearing. He announced his opposition to capital punishment in all circumstances shortly before his resignation after 24 years on the Supreme Court.

Blackmun resigned from the court Aug. 3, 1994, and was succeeded by Justice Stephen G. Breyer. In 1997, he appeared on screen as Justice Joseph Story to deliver the decision that African captives who had commandeered the schooner Amistad were born and remained free men, possessed of "the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice."

Blackmun suffered a fall at age 90 and underwent hip-replacement surgery. He died March 4, 1999, from complications arising from the surgery. He is buried in Section 5, Lot 40-4.