During his 24 years as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Harry Blackmun wrote many landmark opinions on an array of controversial issues. Although probably best known as the author of the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade in 1973, his legacy also includes notable opinions on sex discrimination, bankruptcy and the death penalty. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse traces the extraordinary life and career of this influential associate justice in considerable detail in her consistently engaging and enlightening, very readable Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey. Greenhouse was given access to Blackmun's extensive archive and papers at the Library of Congress. And although her focus is on Blackmun, we also get a sense of how the court functions and the interaction among justices.

The direction taken by Blackmun's career on the Court could not have been predicted either by Richard Nixon, who appointed him, or his longtime friend and fellow Minnesotan, Chief Justice Warren Burger. William Rehnquist, then an assistant attorney general in the Nixon administration, had this to say about Blackmun's record as a federal judge: He does not uniformly come out on one side or the other, though his tendencies are certainly more in the conservative direction than the liberal. His opinions are all carefully reasoned, and give no indication of a preconceived bias in one direction or the other. No one could possibly accuse him of lack of scholarship, since his opinions are replete with citations and discussion. For most observers only one part of this judgment would change: by the time he retired from the Supreme Court, Blackmun was generally considered to be its most liberal member.

This authoritative and insightful book succeeds as both legal history and as a compelling personal story. Greenhouse masterfully explains major opinions in terms that can be understood by non-specialists.

 

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