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March 4, 2004

Papers of Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun Opened for Research at Library of Congress

Blackmun Gave his Papers to Library in 1997; Stipulated that They Were Not To Be Opened until Five Years After His Death

The papers of Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun, which are expected to add to knowledge of the court's interpretation of constitutional law over three decades, open to the public on March 4 in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

Harry A. Blackmun (1908-1999) was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, and he served until his retirement in 1994 at the age of 85. In May 1997, Blackmun gave his papers to the Library of Congress where they joined the papers of 38 other justices and chief justices of the court, including John Marshall, Roger B. Taney, Charles Evans Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Earl Warren and Hugo Black. The Blackmun Papers, which total 1,585 boxes (630 linear feet), comprise one of the largest of the federal judicial collections in the Library of Congress. Only the William O. Douglas Papers, at 1,791 boxes (715 linear feet), is a larger collection.

At the time of his gift, Blackmun stipulated that the papers should not be opened to the general public until five years after his death, although the terms of the instrument of gift authorized the executors of his estate to grant access to researchers prior to March 4, 2004. Blackmun died in Arlington, Va., on March 4, 1999. The executors also granted advanced access to three media outlets in January and February 2004.

Information contained in this collection will add to the knowledge of some of the Supreme Court's greatest figures. Blackmun's colleagues on the bench included Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (a close friend from Minnesota) and current Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist; he also sat with such influential associate justices as Hugo L. Black, William O. Douglas, William J. Brennan, Byron R. White, and Thurgood Marshall.

Blackmun was a contemporary, for varying amounts of time, of seven of the current associate justices who sit on the Supreme Court: John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1932, Blackmun clerked for Judge John B. Sanborn, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, and from 1934 to 1950 he was with the law firm of Dorsey, Colman, Barker, Scott and Barber, in Minneapolis. He was resident counsel for the Mayo Clinic and Mayo Association, Rochester, Minn., from 1950 to 1959, when he was named a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

In one of the oral history interviews with Justice Blackmun conducted by Yale Law School Professor Harold Hongju Koh, a former Blackmun law clerk, which is part of the collection opened today, Blackmun reminisced about his introduction to the court as an associate justice:

"The first time I joined everybody in my robe must have been the ninth day of June 1970, when I came down and was sworn in. I remember walking into the conference room, and there were these eight black-robed figures standing around with names like Hugo Lafayette Black, and William Orville Douglas, and William James Brennan Jr., and John Marshall Harlan and all the rest. Names that any law student, or any lawyer in those days knew well, knew about. Made me wonder what I was doing there. They were very kind at the time and made me feel welcome."

The collection covers all aspects of Blackmun's life. The earliest files contain material from his days as a high school, college and law school student, including diaries, family letters, report cards, drawings, dance cards and essays.

His early career is documented by additional diary entries, as well as correspondence, news clippings, speeches and writings. Of particular interest are letters to and from Blackmun's boyhood friend, Warren Burger, the future chief justice of the Supreme Court. An additional section of the collection, comprising 46 boxes of records and correspondence, covers Blackmun's service on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit from 1959 to 1970.

Information contained in the largest portion of the collection, the Supreme Court file, will greatly increase the knowledge of the largely hidden decision-making processes involved in modern constitutional law. Blackmun was involved in many of the most important cases of the Burger Court (1969-1986); he was also a jurist for the first eight years that the court operated under the leadership of Chief Justice Rehnquist, Burger's successor. Blackmun participated in the Pentagon Papers case (New York Times v. U.S., 1971), the Watergate tapes case (U.S. v. Nixon, 1974) and other constitutional controversies involving congressional powers and federal-state relations.

Blackmun also played an important role in a number of death-penalty decisions. Notable among these were two Georgia cases that first established, and then ended, a short-lived moratorium on capital punishment. Near the end of his career, Blackmun, abandoning his earlier acquiescence in death penalties, recorded a passionate refusal to uphold any more judicial executions: "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."

Blackmun is perhaps best known, however, for his landmark opinion in the abortion-rights cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton (1973). Using a variety of documents now available for the first time in the Blackmun papers, researchers will be able to trace the development of the ideas expressed in Blackmun's determination, for the court, that a constitutional right to privacy under the U.S. Constitution protected a woman's right to have an abortion.

There is also much new material regarding the later abortion-rights case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992). In that decision, the court, while declining to overturn Roe v. Wade, nevertheless upheld most of the restrictions detailed by a Pennsylvania law governing abortions. Blackmun, who maintained his belief in the constitutional basis for abortion rights, differed with his colleagues and wrote that the Pennsylvania law had eroded fundamental rights.

The Blackmun collection features a remarkable variety of materials documenting his life and work while he served on the Supreme Court. Among the most important items are letters- including a sampling of mail from members of the public who opposed the court's ruling in Roe v. Wade-handwritten notes exchanged between the justices as they heard oral arguments, sheets recording the votes and reasoning of various justices during their conferences, letters from justices asking for concurrences in opinions, memos prepared by clerks summarizing and making recommendations regarding cases that might come before the court, legal briefs and draft opinions. Many of these documents bear Blackmun's personal emendations and commentaries, including candid appraisals of opinions drafted by others.

The indexed, 514-page transcript of the interviews of Blackmun by Koh, conducted over a year and a half, from July 6, 1994, to Dec. 13, 1995, is also part of the collection; it has been digitized and is available for research on an internal Web site at the Library. The videotaped interviews themselves have also been digitized and are available online in the Library's Manuscript Division Reading Room. Neither the transcript nor the interviews is accessible on the Library's public Web site at this time. However, a searchable finding aid to the complete Blackmun collection is available over the Internet at the Library's Web site, beginning on March 4; printed copies of the finding aid will also be available in the Manuscript Division Reading Room.

Other materials that have been digitized and made available on the Library's internal Web site so that multiple users can access the documents at the same time are the case files for eight of the important cases in which Blackmun participated: Roe v. Wade, Doe v. Bolton, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority, Callins v. Collins, Bowers v. Hardwick, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke and Buckley v. Valeo.

The Blackmun Papers are available in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division Reading Room, Room 101, James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C., Monday-Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (On Thursday, March 4, the reading room will be open until 9:30 p.m.) All researchers must have a reader registration card in order to use the collections in the Manuscript Reading Room. The card can be obtained by presenting a valid ID with a photo and current address and filling out a short application in the Reader Registration Center in Room LM 140 on the first floor of the Madison Building. There is no cost for a reader registration card.

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PR 04-041
ISSN 0731-3527

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