Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Blackmun Helped Bring Warmth to an Aloof and Secretive Court

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Blackmun Helped Bring Warmth to an Aloof and Secretive Court

Article excerpt

The setting was a New Year's holiday gathering of talkers, some of whom also like to listen. Justice Harry Blackmun was, as usual, joining in the fun - informal reminiscences about former Supreme Court justices by clerks and friends who knew them.

He told this story: Soon after he joined the court, the justices had gathered in their basement projection room for a duty most of them disliked - viewing pornographic movies caught in the toils of the law to determine whether they might somehow qualify for First Amendment protection.

The venerable Justice John Marshall Harlan, a tower of judicial dignity then nearing retirement, and almost blind, was seated in the front row with a clerk at hand as his seeing eye. "What are they doing now?" Harlan could occasionally be heard asking. The clerk would lean over and whisper a description of the action. "You don't say!" Harlan would marvel. "You don't say!"

The occasion on which Blackmun related his story a few months ago was off the record. But it is worth bending the rules to tell the story, as Blackmun himself now prepares his exit from the court after nearly a quarter century. I do so to make a couple of points about him that trouble his detractors but about which I have mixed feelings, running to the positive.

No Supreme Court justice of the recent era - not even Thurgood Marshall, who in death opened his court papers to public scrutiny - has studied the strengths and foibles of his colleagues more closely nor spoken more bluntly about them. No recent justice has done more to lift, a bit, the curtain of secrecy to offer humanizing glimpses of the court.

Some of Blackmun's revelations are as harmlessly engaging as the Harlan anecdote or his keen interest portraits of past Supreme Court justices. Others are more provocative, as was his remarkable suggestion, a few years back, that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was behaving as if she might have presidential ambitions.

The Supreme Court is a secretive institution; it usually speaks only in formal opinions. It must guard against the premature disclosure of unripened decisions, subject to change until the minute they are formally announced. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.