In the spring of 1970 Richard Nixon was having trouble filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court. His first two choices, both Southern conservatives, had been voted down in the Senate. Smarting from these defeats, the Administration turned to an old childhood friend of Chief Justice Warren Burger, whom Nixon had appointed a year earlier. He was a 61-year-old Midwesterner named Harry Blackmun. Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist had vetted Blackmun’s record as an appellate judge and found him to be “conservative-to-moderate in both criminal law and civil rights.” In April Nixon met with his third-choice candidate in the Oval Office.
Among Blackmun’s papers, from which Linda Greenhouse has crafted her highly readable story of his career on the Supreme Court, there is a dictation he made to his file about the meeting. As the interview ended, Blackmun recounts, Nixon “took my arm…and led me to the window overlooking the Rose Garden. He said, Judge, when you come down here, you will be completely independent. That is the way it should be.”
It is difficult to imagine that at the time either man foresaw just how accurate the President’s words would turn out to be. The fact was, a Republican President, preparing to run against legalization of abortion in his re-election campaign, had just nominated a man who less than three years later would write the Roe v. Wade decision, and who over the course of the next two decades would become the most liberal voice on the Supreme Court. As the country prepares for what promises to be a major battle to fill the seat that Chief Justice Rehnquist is expected to retire from later this year, Greenhouse, who has covered the Supreme Court for the New York Times since 1978, has given us a very timely account of how this transformation took place and of how a Justice who was at first suspicious of feminism became an ardent defender of gender equality and women’s rights.
Upon his retirement in 1994, Blackmun, who it turns out was quite a pack rat, arranged for all 1,585 boxes of his papers–from childhood diaries to draft opinions to notes passed down the bench from other Justices–to be donated to the Library of Congress and opened to the public five years after his death, which came in 1999. Anticipating intense interest in the abortion cases in particular, the Blackmun family gave Greenhouse a two-month head start in the archive. The result was a series of three feature articles that ran in the Times last year covering Roe and its legacy, Blackmun’s evolving view of the constitutional status of the death penalty and, finally, the story of his lifelong friendship with Chief Justice Burger. Becoming Justice Blackmun is essentially a book-length treatment of these same three subjects, and thus, as its author readily admits, is neither a full biography nor a complete account of a judicial career. (Friends and foes of Blackmun, have no fear; such tomes are well under way.)
In many ways, the most narratively compelling portion of the book takes place before Blackmun even reaches the Court. In the same lucid, economical prose that distinguishes her reporting in the Times, Greenhouse tells the story of Blackmun’s upbringing in a modest household in St. Paul and his career in private practice. Surprisingly enough, what emerges is a portrait of a cautious man, held back at times by financial worries and hesitant at nearly every step to take risks. There is little indication of the person who would eventually disagree so starkly and repeatedly with his old childhood friend Burger, who grew up in the same moderate Republican climate of opinion that Blackmun did.