Former Supreme Court Justice Blackmun Dies at 90

By Murray, Frank J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 5, 1999 | Go to article overview

Former Supreme Court Justice Blackmun Dies at 90


Murray, Frank J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Retired Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, whose opinion forbidding states to outlaw abortion still divides the nation, died yesterday at age 90 of complications from surgery for a broken hip.

Until his death, the crusty self-styled "old goat" who survived vile threats and a bullet fired through a window of his Rosslyn apartment in 1985 tried to avoid being saddled with a one-issue legacy from a court career spanning three decades. But he never backed off his conclusions in the 7-2 opinion.

"I'll carry this one to my grave," Justice Blackmun predicted on the 10th anniversary of the Jan. 22, 1973, Roe vs. Wade ruling that assured easier access to abortion nationwide.

"If it goes down the drain, I'd still like to regard `Roe vs. Wade' as a landmark in the progress of the emancipation of women," he said in 1988, shortly before the high court began allowing some abortion restrictions.

His second most memorable moment in jurisprudence came in 1994, when he abandoned his stance holding capital punishment constitutional.

"From this day forward I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death," he wrote.

The lawyer who once hoped to be a physician and served as resident counsel of the Mayo Clinic died at 1 a.m. at Arlington Hospital, where he had a hip-replace-ment after breaking his left hip Feb. 22 in a fall at his apartment in the Jefferson assisted-living facility in Arlington.

Born on Nov. 12, 1908, in Nashville, Ill., he grew up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1932, he practiced law in Minneapolis.

As in life, Justice Blackmun was eulogized yesterday by pro-choice activists and damned by those who call abortion murder.

"As president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and as a woman who remembers life before Roe vs. Wade, I am deeply saddened by the loss of Justice Harry Blackmun," said Gloria Feldt.

Those with different opinions had labeled him "butcher" and "murderer" in more than 60,000 letters he insisted on reading over the years, including a 1984 death threat attributed to the "Army of God."

Pro-life activist Michael Bray of Bowie, who never acknowledges claims he is a prime mover of the shadowy "Army of God," yesterday denied claims that he wrote the threat or did the 1985 shooting. Police and FBI wrote it off as an unintended random bullet, a verdict Justice Blackmun never accepted.

"Judgment day comes for every man. He's got a lot to answer for. He is the architect, I guess, of the Roe doctrine that has been a blight on this nation. Good riddance," Mr. Bray said.

Without dissent, all nine justices of the present court praised their former colleague, as did its only surviving retiree, Justice Byron R. White, 81, who declared Justice Blackmun "very respect-ed" and "as solid a man as could be."

In 1973, it was Justice Byron White and a new associate justice, William H. …

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