The St. Paulite who wrote the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun was already weighing in on the Constitution as a student at Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul.

It was the subject of an oratory contest held in 1924 by the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press, and the 15-year-old East Sider took first place with an entry that “would have done credit to Daniel Webster,” the Dispatch reported.

“The Constitution lives!” the bespectacled young Blackmun declared from the podium of Central High’s auditorium. “Down through the years it has come often assailed, often ridiculed, yet still surviving, the hope and the fortress of a new nation.”

Nearly five decades later, his views on the Constitution would make him a lightning rod for controversy for the rest of his life.

In 1973, Blackmun wrote the majority opinion in the Roe v. Wade case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that state laws banning abortion violate a pregnant woman’s right to privacy protected by the 14th Amendment.

“This right of privacy … is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy,” Blackmun wrote in the 7-2 decision. “The detriment that the State would impose upon the pregnant woman by denying this choice altogether is apparent.”

On May 2, a leaked draft of the high court’s majority opinion in another abortion case suggested at least five justices were prepared to reverse the precedent established by Roe v. Wade.

The draft has dominated headlines and cable news, with talking heads parsing what such a ruling would mean for abortion rights and politics in the United States. Blackmun’s name is rarely mentioned — an outcome he may have welcomed.

Although he was just one of seven justices who made up the majority in Roe v. Wade, it was Blackmun who spent the last two decades of his public life as the lonely avatar of the country’s bitter divide over abortion.

“Author of the abortion decision,” he said some years later before his death in 1999. “We all pick up tags. I’ll carry this one to my grave.”

Read former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s Pioneer Press obituary

Blackmun, who earned undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard, lived in Rochester, Minn., from 1950 to 1970. Blackmun was a prominent attorney and later federal judge, serving as legal counsel for the Mayo Clinic from 1950 to 1959.

He reportedly spent time at Mayo learning about the practice medicine. Although he and his wife, Dottie, had been living in Washington since his unanimous Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court, Blackmun returned to Rochester while working on the Roe v. Wade decision in Mayo’s medical library.

Blackmun received an estimated 60,000 pieces of hate mail after the court issued the Roe ruling, all of which he claimed to have read. His life was threatened more than once. His public appearances were picketed. Someone once fired a gunshot into his home.

Outside the Minnesota Supreme Court chamber in the state Capitol in St. Paul, an alcove reserved for a bust of Blackmun sits empty, because anti-abortion Republicans in the Legislature have voted at least twice against placing his likeness in the building.

Across the hallway, a bust of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, who also sided with the majority in Roe v. Wade, sits in an identical alcove without any apparent controversy.

Blackmun and Burger grew up together as close friends on St. Paul’s East Side, and they were nominated to the Supreme Court by Republican President Richard Nixon about a year apart.

Because of their shared background and common conservative ideology, Blackmun and Burger were dubbed the “Minnesota Twins.” But they would drift apart — both personally and ideologically — over the course of their time on the court, as Blackmun increasingly sided with its more liberal justices, though five of the seven members of the Roe majority were nominated by Republican presidents.

He became “a vigilant opponent of racial and gender discrimination, a supporter of strict church-state separation and a frequent defender of individual rights,” the Pioneer Press reported in a retrospective on his career, which included playing a Supreme Court justice in the 1997 film “Amistad.”

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for more historical content like this.

After voting to uphold the death penalty for two decades on the court, Blackmun abruptly changed positions toward the end of his time on the bench.

“Republicans think I’m a traitor and Democrats don’t trust me,” Blackmun said in 1991. “So I twist in the wind, owing allegiance to no one, which is precisely where I want to be.”

By the time he retired in 1994, Blackmun had authored hundreds of opinions, but he would always be remembered for Roe.

A devout Methodist, had been called a butcher, compared with Adolf Hitler and Pontius Pilate, the Pioneer Press reported at the time.

“I’d be less than candid if I said it does not hurt, but not as much anymore,” Blackmun told a reporter. “People misunderstand. I am not for abortion. I hope my family never has to face such a decision.”