Becoming Justice Blackmun

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The workings of the United States Supreme Court are as mysterious as they are fascinating and important. Nine justices do their work largely in secret, deciding without public explanation which cases they will hear, discussing and voting on each accepted case in closed-door conference without even clerks in attendance. The Court has resisted all pressure to allow cameraseven still photographersinto its chambers. For this reason, books that offer more than speculation about the workings of the Court, including The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court (1979) by Scott Armstrong and Bob Woodward and Linda Greenhouse’s Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey, are eagerly read. While the selection of justices has become increasingly politicized, the information obtained about a prospective justice’s opinions before joining the Court is rarely matched by an understanding of what he or she thinks and does once confirmed.

Becoming Justice Blackmun grew out of an extraordinary opportunity: Blackmun stipulated in his will that his personal and official papers be given to the Library of Congress and made public five years after his death. Public access became available in March, 2004. Greenhouse, presumably on the strength of her two decades of reporting on the Supreme Court for The New York Times, was allowed by the Blackmun family to have access to the papers two months before anyone else. The resulting book is a distillation of more than half a million pages of diaries, marginalia, letters, official documents, and a list of every book Blackmun ever read into less than three hundred pages, pulled together in mere months. As Greenhouse reports, she “did not interview family members of former law clerks” and “made only minimal use of secondary sources.” The book, then, offers a priceless glimpse into one of the greatest legal minds of a generation but only a glimpse. It will fall to future biographers and historians to examine the life that is not recorded in the archives, and to evaluate how Blackmun’s sense of his own career aligns with that of others.

The book, which runs mostly chronologically, begins with Blackmun’s diary, started in 1919 when he was eleven years old and continuing nearly to the end of his life in 1999. The story looks backward to Harry’s birth in Illinois and to his childhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, where in kindergarten he met a boy who would become a lifelong friend, Warren Burger. The boys lived just six blocks apart, and they played sports and worked as summer camp counselors together even when they were attending separate high schools. Through college and law school, again at different schools, the two men maintained a warm correspondence, congratulating and encouraging each other. Blackmun was best man at Burger’s wedding.

Like many friends, the two were very different. Burger, for example, always desired to reach the top of his profession, and he eagerly accepted his nomination as chief justice of the United States in 1969. For his part, Blackmun “was, frankly and self-consciously, risk-averse,” and he did not seek out high-profile positions. In the mid 1930’s he twice turned down chances to work in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, choosing instead to stay in Minnesota. There he married Dottie Clark and had three children with her before becoming, in 1949, the first resident counsel for the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Blackmun’s nine years with the Mayo Clinic, “the happiest of his professional life,” gave him an insight into the challenges facing the medical profession, on which he would draw in drafting his most visible Supreme Court opinion.

From his first day on the Court, Blackmun found the job intimidating. He had been nominated to replace the retiring Abe Fortas and was confirmed after a hearing that lasted a mere four hours. Sworn in...

(The entire section is 1600 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The American Prospect 16 (September, 2005): 38-39.

Booklist 101, no. 18 (May 15, 2005): 1619.

The Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 2005: 15.

Commentary 120, no. 1 (July/August, 2005): 69-72.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 6 (March 15, 2005): 333.

Library Journal 130, no. 7 (April 15, 2005): 104-105.

Ms. 15, no. 2 (Summer, 2005): 35.

National Review 57, no. 14 (August 8, 2005): 47-48.

The New Republic 232, no. 24 (June 27, 2005): 36-41.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (May 8, 2005): 9.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 15 (April 11, 2005): 45-46.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 23, 2005, p. 11.

Washington Monthly 37, nos. 7/8 (July/August, 2005): 58-60.

The Washington Post Book World 35 (May 8, 2005): 3.

The Wilson Quarterly 29, no. 3 (Summer 2005): 125-127.