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The judicial life of Harry Andrew Blackmun by Biographer Linda Greenhouse

published May 30, 2005

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Marshall drew bolts of lightning for a dozen opinions after Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Poor Taney never recovered from his opinion in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Almost a century later, a dozen states vilified Warren for ending racial segregation in their public schools. Blackmun went to his grave in 1999 with denunciations of his opinion in Roe v. Wade, the great abortion case, ringing in his ears. He was never built for bloody combat.

In her superlative mini-biography of "Old No. Three," The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse examines the judicial life of Harry Andrew Blackmun as it appears from his papers. Greenhouse is dean of the press corps at the high court. Here she ventures no personal judgments. Relying upon hundreds of letters, case notes and drafts of opinions just made available by the Library of Congress, she lets the record speak for itself.

It is a remarkably human record of a mediocrity on the lower slopes of Olympus. Some men are born to fame, or so they say; and some, like Harry Blackmun, have fame thrust upon them. In the spring of 1969, Justice Abe Fortas, a brilliant jurist, resigned in undeserved disgrace. Nixon wanted Judge Clement Haynsworth, a good man, to succeed him, but the nomination foundered on political shoals. Nixon then sent up the name of Harrold Carswell, a disaster. Finally Nixon turned to an obscure federal judge in Minnesota. The unanimous confirmation of Old No. Three ended an unhappy chapter in Supreme Court history.

The most poignant chapters in Greenhouse's splendid book deal with Blackmun's doomed friendship with Warren Earl Burger. They met as kindergartners in St. Paul. In their teenage years they were best pals, though Burger always was the dominant partner. By his senior year in high school, Blackmun had become a top-flight worrier. "What is the matter with me?" he asked of his diary. "I seem to have absolutely no courage, physically or mentally."

In 1954, Burger became a federal judge in the District of Columbia. Almost immediately he began promoting Blackmun for a judgeship back home in Minnesota. A vacancy opened on the 8th Circuit. Blackmun's nomination sailed through the Senate. Eventually he would write 217 opinions for the court, but he was not a happy camper. He wrote one notable opinion "in a quavering state."

When Burger had his own periods of self-doubt, Blackmun was there to prop him up: "I do not need to tell you what your friendship and confidence have meant to me ..." When Burger succeeded Earl Warren as chief justice, Blackmun was elated: "My support is yours for the asking at all times." After Blackmun's elevation to the Supreme Court in 1970, the relationship remained close — for a time.

It took less than a decade for Burger's imperial style to wear upon his Minnesota twin. By 1978, in the privacy of chambers, Blackmun's clerks felt free to mock Burger's style. Blackmun himself grew increasingly critical. In memoranda made available to Greenhouse, he gave the chief justice only a "C-minus" for one of his opinions. During a conference on cases, Blackmun made a note: "CJ keeps yapping." On another occasion, he noted under Burger's name, "talk, talk." When Ronald Reagan visited the court as president-elect in 1980, Blackmun noted, "CJ takes over as usual in a big way." Again, "CJ very cool." Again, "CJ picks on me at conference."

By the mid-1980s, Damon and Pythias were still speaking, but not by much. The letters and cards had petered out. "From then on, we grew apart." Blackmun began filing unflattering articles about Burger. In 1989 he pointedly declined to attend a ceremony in St. Paul marking the start of the Burger Law Library. Back in 1933, Blackmun had served as best man at Burger's wedding. On the 60th anniversary of that occasion, Blackmun sent a conciliatory note of congratulation. Burger responded a month later. His secretary had signed the letter.

A few years ago, Linda Greenhouse won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting. Biography also offers a prize, and she deserves a nomination for this one, too.

(Letters to Mr. Kilpatrick should be sent by e-mail to

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published May 30, 2005

( 5 votes, average: 4.4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.