Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey

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A Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent with unprecedented access to the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court chronicles the personal transformation of a legendary justice

From 1970 to 1994, Justice Harry A. Blackmun (1908-1999) wrote numerous landmark Supreme Court decisions, including Roe v. Wade, and participated in the most contentious debates of his era-all behind closed doors. In Becoming Justice Blackmun, Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times draws back the curtain on...

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Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey

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Overview

A Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent with unprecedented access to the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court chronicles the personal transformation of a legendary justice

From 1970 to 1994, Justice Harry A. Blackmun (1908-1999) wrote numerous landmark Supreme Court decisions, including Roe v. Wade, and participated in the most contentious debates of his era-all behind closed doors. In Becoming Justice Blackmun, Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times draws back the curtain on America's most private branch of government and reveals the backstage story of the Supreme Court through the eyes and writings of this extraordinary justice.

Greenhouse was the first print reporter to have access to Blackmun's extensive archive and his private and public papers. From this trove she has crafted a compelling narrative of Blackmun's years on the Court, showing how he never lost sight of the human beings behind the legal cases and how he was not afraid to question his own views on such controversial issues as abortion, the death penalty, and sex discrimination. Greenhouse also tells the story of how Blackmun's lifelong friendship with Chief Justice Warren E. Burger withered in the crucible of life on the nation's highest court, revealing how political differences became personal, even for the country's most respected jurists.

Becoming Justice Blackmun, written by America's preeminent Supreme Court reporter, offers a rare and wonderfully vivid portrait of the nation's highest court, including insights into many of the current justices. It is a must-read for everyone who cares about the Court and its impact on our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Though major changes took place in the makeup of the Supreme Court in 2005-6, New York Times writer Linda Greenhouse focuses on Justice Harry Blackmun, a Nixon appointee whose odyssey placed him in a startling role amid some of the most crucial legal controversies of our time. Engrossing and enlightening, Greenhouse's biography earns its place as a classic about this much-discussed bulwark of the U.S. government.
From the Publisher
"At last, the mystery unveiled! The Supreme Court traditionally guards its privacy to the death, but Harry Blackmun, a supremely humane justice, left papers describing what the Court actually does behind the scenes, and Linda Greenhouse has used the Blackmun papers to write a fascinating book. Especially gripping is the intense human drama of the breakup of a lifelong friendship between Justice Blackmun and Chief Justice Warren Burger."

-Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"Anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court and anyone who hopes to grasp the subtle ways that personal philosophy and psychology combine with the sometimes impersonal logic of the law to shape the outcomes of great legal battles, would do well to read Linda Greenhouse's unpretentious but powerful story of Harry Blackmun. Greenhouse, in a jewel fully worthy of her reputation as the best journalist ever to have covered the work of the Supreme Court, proves to be as able a biographer as she is a reporter. Becoming Justice Blackmun is a brilliant and penetrating study of how unsought challenge and controversy can, in the most modest of men, bring out a measure of true greatness."

-Laurence Tribe

"Harry Blackmun was the model public servant: hard-working, self-effacing, scrupulously honest, of a humorous bent, persnickety about language, ever re-examining his own thinking and dispositions, a patriot of process. Linda Greenhouse's elegant biography, a look at the professional life of the Justice in the blue Volkswagen, opens a window on the Court and on the antique notion of public service."

-Garrison Keillor

"This is a wonderful, a thrilling book. Linda Greenhouse has given us both the touching story of a man's transformation and a rare insight into the way the Supreme Court works. It is born a classic."

-Anthony Lewis

"I raced through Linda Greenhouse's book as soon as I got my hands on it. Becoming Justice Blackmun is both gripping constitutional history and rich personal drama. The nation's finest Supreme Court reporter has produced a vivid and fascinating portrait of a complex man."

-Jeffrey Toobin

Jeffrey Rosen
Linda Greenhouse, the Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times, is widely respected not only for her scrupulous translations of complicated opinions and traditions but also for her care in avoiding gossip and preserving the justices' privacy. In her first book, Becoming Justice Blackmun, she has produced something unexpected: one of the most intimate and revealing portraits of the relationship between two justices ever achieved … Ms. Greenhouse's achievement in her meticulous narrative history is to provide new ammunition for Justice Blackmun's critics as well as his admirers. And readers who are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the court could not hope for a more engrossing introduction.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun's lifelong connection with Chief Justice Warren Burger-beginning in kindergarten in St. Paul, Minn., and culminating in 16 years together on the Supreme Court-supplies Greenhouse with one of her main organizing themes in this illuminating study of Blackmun's life and intellectual history. Once the closest of friends, Blackmun (1908-1999) and Burger diverged personally and ideologically, beginning in 1973, when Burger assigned Blackmun to write the Court's opinion in Roe v. Wade. Greenhouse, the New York Times's veteran Supreme Court watcher, draws primarily on Blackmun's massive personal archive to show how his authorship of the majority opinion in Roe (7-2) propelled him down several unexpected paths. Blackmun embraced equal protection for women and came to reject capital punishment. A Nixon appointee, Blackmun became the Supreme Court's most liberal justice after the retirement of William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall. The personality that emerges in Greenhouse's portrayal is that of a self-effacing and scholarly judge, devoid of partisanship, willing to follow his ideas wherever they led him. Making no pretense at being definitive or comprehensive, Greenhouse sets a high standard in offering an intimate look both at the man and at the development of his judicial thought. B&w photos. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court journalist and commentator for the New York Times, Greenhouse offers an exceptionally readable biography of Justice Harry Blackmun, from his childhood to his service on the Supreme Court. Drawing upon primary-source materials in the Harry A. Blackmun Collection at the Library of Congress, Greenhouse portrays the evolution of Blackmun's judicial philosophy. In using Blackmun's files, correspondence, and papers, the author creates a revealing portrait of both the man himself and the inner workings of the Supreme Court, including his fractious relationship with Chief Justice Warren Burger. Central to the narrative is Blackmun's involvement in Roe v. Wade, subsequent abortion litigation, and capital punishment litigation. This small book is a valuable addition to the existing body of judicial biographies. Highly recommended.-Theodore Pollack, New York Cty. Public Access Law Lib., New York Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The life and times of a Supreme Court justice who resisted easy categorization, then and now. On his death in 1999, writes New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Greenhouse, Harry Blackmun gave the Library of Congress his papers, "contained in 1,585 boxes that take up more than six hundred feet." Drawing on this wealth of primary information, Greenhouse turns in a nuanced study of Blackmun as legal thinker and judge. Along the way, she offers revealing notes on Warren Burger, whose own papers are sealed until 2026; Burger, Blackmun's childhood friend and fellow Minnesotan, helped see Blackmun onto the bench. Other Minnesotans were guarded in their support: Walter Mondale dismissed him as a conservative, and Hubert Humphrey was not enthusiastic. Blackmun gave liberal critics reason for concern, as when he dissented from the opinion allowing the New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers, remarking, "The First Amendment, after all, is only one part of an entire Constitution." (A citizen from New Jersey wrote in to say, "I thought you were a ‘strict constructionist'. . . . More a strict Nixonist.") Yet Blackmun also took it on himself to write the Court's opinion on Roe v. Wade, interpreting it not simply from the woman's-choice stance but also as "primarily, a medical decision." Blackmun had to defend Roe v. Wade for the rest of his career, as a target of those who wished to outlaw abortion entirely; he was relieved when in 1992 five justices declared that "the essential holding of Roe v. Wade should be retained and once again reaffirmed." Greenhouse observes that their time spent together on the bench did ill for Blackmun's friendship with Burger, whom he came to regard as a pooradministrator and shallow thinker; the animosity grew in the matter of United States v. Nixon, which bitterly divided the Court. So, too, would other issues-among them, toward the end of his career, the death penalty-and by Greenhouse's account Blackmun conducted himself well throughout them. Detailed and well considered: a welcome study of Blackmun's contributions to the law. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805077919
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/2/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Linda Greenhouse has covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times since 1978 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her coverage of the Court. She appears regularly on the PBS program Washington Week in Review and lectures frequently on the Supreme Court at colleges and law schools. She graduated from Radcliffe College and holds a master of studies in law from Yale Law School.

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Read an Excerpt

From Becoming Justice Blackmun:

Planned Parenthood v. Casey was argued on April 22, 1992. As in the Webster case three years earlier, it was not clear from the discussion at the conference whether Roe v. Wade itself was really on the table. But while there was uncertainty as to the details, Blackmun knew he would be writing a dissent.

Rehnquist circulated a twenty-seven-page draft majority opinion on May 27. "Wow! Pretty extreme!" Blackmun wrote in the margin of the first page. All the Pennsylvania law's provisions were upheld. Further, Rehnquist said the Court had been "mistaken in Roe when it classified a woman's decision to terminate her pregnancy as a 'fundamental right.' "

Then, suddenly, everything changed. Two days later, a handwritten note arrived from Anthony Kennedy. "Dear Harry, I need to see you as soon as you have a few free moments. I want to tell you about some developments in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and at least part of what I say should come as welcome news."

When the two met the following day, Kennedy revealed that he, O'Connor, and Souter had been meeting privately and were jointly drafting an opinion that, far from overruling Roe, would save it-not in its details, but in its essence. The constitutional right to abortion would be preserved.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2006

    An eyeopening book

    A real eye opener about the man who had such an impact on the American justice system and American life far more even than Roe vs. Wade. The contrast between two best friends Blackmun and Warren Burger and how Blackmun grew while Burger chose to be a 'little man' is really outstanding. One of the best biographies I have read in some time.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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