Sunday, February 20, 2011

Becoming Justice Blackmun

Linda Greenhouse, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her coverage of the Supreme Court in The New York Times, writes an engaging, and rather fascinating non-fiction account of the inner-workings of the court from the personal correspondence and notes of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun in her book titled Becoming Harry Blackmun.

Blackmun, who was elected to the court in 1959 and retired in 1994, left behind in his personal papers more than a half a million items, contained in 1585 boxes, with the instructions they be sealed until five years after his death. Blackmun died in 1999, so the library opened his collection in 2004 --- from those Blackmun papers, Greenhouse weaves her story of Blackmun's life and some of the famous court cases under his judgeship.

Without interviewing family members or former law clerks, Greenhouse takes Blackmun's own notes and narrates a life of a "consequential" man whose life "spanned decades of the twentieth century and left its mark not only on the law but on American society."

A fascinating read from the grass roots origin of Blackmun's family to the hallowed halls of the nation's most powerful court, Greenhouse's work never bogs down. She wisely chooses to limit her focus and direction by following the "seams" of several significant and highly controversial cases including abortion, the death penalty, and sex discrimination as well as Blackmun's complicated relationship with his boyhood friend Warren E. Burger, who served as the fiftieth chief justice of the United States.

Blackmun, not only meticulous in his writing of his arguments [he was a stickler for exact writing and correct grammar and punctuation-- he corrected his law clerks and even other justices -- gotta love that], agonized and struggled over the court cases, wondering about the precedents set and the possibilities of decisions being overturned in the future.

Blackmun worked in service for the American people. At a speech at the Aspen Institute, he admitted that even though working for the court was a "privilege," "it has not been much fun."

Indeed, for as Greenhouse presents Blackmun's tenure as a Chief Justice, he spent long days, cloistered in a law office, alone for hours at a time, where he mulled over details of cases, rereading and reviewing the files until he felt he understood what direction to take.

Whether or not I agree with Blackmun's views is not important --- what I did understand is that Blackmun gave his life to his judgeship -- and performed his "duty" to the best of his ability. I admire that, regardless of whether I agree with his decisions.

Great book. :)

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