Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice

Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice

Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice

Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice

Synopsis

Justice Harry A. Blackmun, author of the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, was the pivotal figure in one of the most contentious decisions in Supreme Court history and indeed the most divisive issue facing the Court today. Harry A. Blackmun: The Outsider Justice is Tinsley E. Yarbrough's penetrating account of one of the most outspoken and complicated figures on the modern Supreme Court. As a justice, Blackmun stood at the pinnacle of the American judiciary. Yet when he took his seaton the Court, Justice Blackmun felt "almost desperate," overwhelmed with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy over the immense responsibilities before him. Blackmun had overcome humble roots to achieve a Harvard education, success as a Minneapolis lawyer and resident counsel to the prestigious Mayo Clinic. But growing up in a financially unstable home with a frequently unemployed father and an emotionally fragile mother left a permanent mark on the future justice. All his life, Harry Blackmun considered himself one of society's outsiders, someone who did not "belong." Remarkably, though, that very self-image instilled in the justice, throughout his career, a deep empathy for society's most vulnerable outsiders-women faced with unwanted pregnancies, homosexuals subjected to archaic laws, and ultimately, death-row inmates. To those who saw his career as the constitutional "odyssey" of a conservative jurist gradually transformed into a champion of the underdog, Blackmun had a ready answer: he had not changed; the Court and the issues before them changed. Drawing on considerable archival research and a wealth of knowledge of Supreme Court history, Yarbrough has written a nuanced and deeply insightful account of the life and career of one of the court's most intriguing justices.

Excerpt

Asked late in life to describe his feelings on first taking a seat on the Supreme Court, one of the nation’s most powerful and influential institutions, Justice Harry Andrew Blackmun gave a surprising response. “I don’t know how it affects other people,” he confessed, “but I think there is a feeling of [being] almost desperate … wondering whether one is qualified to be there. After all, this is the end of the line. I well remember going into the robing room and the then-justices were lined up, and there were Hugo L. Black and William O. Douglas and William J. Brennan, Jr. and John Harlan, and … I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ ”

Examining the record he compiled during nearly a quarter century on the high bench, many of Justice Blackmun’s critics wondered the same thing. in many ways, his life was the typical American success story. Raised in the humble Dayton’s Bluff section on the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota, the future justice compiled an outstanding high school record. Despite working many hours at a host of jobs to supplement a tuition scholarship, he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College in 1929 and completed his law studies at Harvard in 1932, at the height of the Depression. After clerking eighteen months for John B. Sanborn, a distinguished judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Blackmun took . . .

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