Harry Blackmun

Harry Blackmun Biography

Supreme Court Justice (1908–1999)
Harry Blackmun was the 98th U.S. Supreme Court justice, known for his landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade.


Born on November 12, 1908, in Nashville, Illinois, Harry Blackmun forged a career in law and went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1970. He authored the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which guaranteed constitutional protection for a woman’s right to have an abortion, and was known for increasingly liberal rulings over time despite a conservative background. He died on March 4, 1999.

Early Life

Harry Andrew Blackmun was born on November 12, 1908, in Nashville, Illinois. During his childhood, Blackmun's family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. His father worked as a hardware store manager at one point, while his mother was a musician, helping to bestow upon the young Blackmun a lifelong love of music. He also befriended Warren Burger, a schoolmate and fellow paperboy whom he would one day work with as a law professional.

Harry Blackmun earned a scholarship to attend Harvard University, majoring in mathematics and graduating summa cum laude in 1929. Though he considered studying medicine, he ultimately decided to devote himself to law and attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1932.

Joining the Supreme Court

Harry Blackmun was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. He would hold this position until 1970, when President Richard Nixon was looking for someone to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat resulting from the departure of Abe Fortas. Two of Nixon's nominees had been rejected by the Senate. Burger, who by this time had just been promoted to chief justice, recommended Blackmun. Nominated by Nixon, he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court, and was sworn in on May 12, 1970.

Author of 'Roe v. Wade'

Although he was viewed as a conservative judge and his initial rulings fell on the side of the governmental status quo, Blackmun, a Republican, made history in 1973 by authoring the Supreme Court decision in the case of Roe v. Wade, which legally affirmed that woman across the United States had the constitutional right to have an abortion. The judges ruled 7-2 in favor of Blackmun's opinion in the historic case.

Later high-court configurations called into question the safety of the Roe v. Wade decision, and Blackmun expressed dismay over its possibly being overturned, but the original ruling remained intact. While reviled by many anti-abortion agitators, Blackmun was also revered by women's rights groups, and went on to have more female law clerks on his staff than the rest of the justices on the Court combined.

Liberal Force on Court

Over the years, Blackmun became an increasingly liberal force on the court, advocating for affirmative action, the poor, and immigrants' rights. A few months before his retirement, he opposed the use of the death penalty. Blackmun was noted to be a highly intelligent, modest judge who was fit, had a knack for humor, and sometimes displayed emotion and cultural interests in his writings.

Blackmun retired at the age of 85 in 1994. He died on March 4, 1999, at 90 years old, after complications from hip surgery. He had donated his papers to the Library of Congress in 1997, and they were made available to the public in 2004.

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