Becoming Justice Blackmun Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey

Linda Greenhouse

Times Books



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book

From 1970 to 1994, Justice Harry A. Blackmun (1908-1999) wrote numerous landmark Supreme Court decisions, including Roe vs. Wade, and participated in the most contentious debates of his era—all behind closed doors. In Becoming Justice Blackmun, Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times draws back the curtain on America's most private branch of government and reveals the backstage story of the Supreme Court through the eyes and writing of this extraordinary justice.

Greenhouse was the first print reporter to have access to Harry Blackmun's extensive archive and private and public papers, and from this trove she has crafted a compelling narrative of Blackmun's life and of his years on the Court, showing how he never lost sight of the human beings behind the legal cases and how he was not afraid to question his own views in such controversial issues as abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty, and sex discrimination. She shows us the Court as a human institution, where nine very smart and very opinionated lawyers seek to make decisions and bring others around to their point of view, especially during Blackmun's twenty-four years on the bench, as the justices repeatedly tussled with one another over the contentious cases—the Pentagon Papers, Roe v. Wade, the Nixon tapes, Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, Planned Parenthood v. Casey—that came their way. And most affectingly of all, Greenhouse recounts the story of how Harry Blackmun's lifelong friendship with Chief Justice Warren E. Burger withered in the crucible of life on the high court, revealing how political differences became personal, even for the country's most respected jurists.

Becoming Justice Blackmun, written by America's preeminent Supreme Court reporter, offers a rare and wonderfully vivid portrait of the nation's highest court, including insights into many of the current justices. It is a must-read for everyone who cares about the Court and its impact on our lives.


Praise for Becoming Justice Blackmun

"In clear and forceful prose, Becoming Justice Blackmun tells a judicial Horatio Alger story and a tale of a remarkable transformation . . . He would appreciate this book. The Blackmun whom Greenhouse paints in this page turner is a modest Minnesotan, who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders."—Laura Kalman, The New York Times Book Review

"[A] wonderful book . . . One of the most intimate and revealing portraits of the relationship between two justices ever achieved . . . Based on her immersion in the Blackmun papers, Ms. Greenhouse offers a narrative that is often riveting in its raw glimpses of the insecurities and emotions of Justice Blackmun and his childhood friend, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. Ms. Greenhouse is characteristically fair-minded in her determination to present Justice Blackmun, Chief Justice Burger, and the other justices in context and in their own words . . . Ms. Greenhouse's achievement in her meticulous narrative history is to provide new ammunition for Justice Blackmun's critics as well as his admirers. And readers who are unfamiliar with the inner workings of the court could not hope for a more engrossing introduction."—Jeffrey Rosen, The New York Times

"A graceful account, filled with well-chosen quotations, apt observations, and elegant legal summaries."—Akhil Reed Amar, The Washington Post Book World

"Blackmun left a prodigious amount of documentary material, and Greenhouse has used it with rare intelligence. She excavates a flesh-and-blood character from Blackmun's published opinions, a lengthy oral interview, case files, correspondence, and fragmentary notes that amply reveal his personality and the workings of his mind. Greenhouse offers us a nuanced account of the impact of Roe v. Wade within the Court and a clear understanding of Blackmun's long journey to the rejection of the death penalty . . . Greenhouse's work with Blackmun's papers . . . reveals a man charting and always in command of his own direction throughout his tenure."—Stanley I. Kutler, The American Prospect

"Should inform anyone with an interest in the law and how the court operates . . . I imagine that Blackmun, a precise writer and exacting editor, would approve."—Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

"An engaging journalistic examination . . . It provides new details on how Roe v. Wade became the law of the land."—Warren Richey, The Christian Science Monitor

"This is a wonderful, a thrilling book. Linda Greenhouse has given us both the touching story of a man's transformation and a rare insight into the way the Supreme Court works. It is born a classic."—Anthony Lewis

"At last, the mystery unveiled! The Supreme Court traditionally guards its privacy to the death, but Harry Blackmun, a supremely humane justice, left papers describing what the Court actually does behind the scenes, and Linda Greenhouse has used the Blackmun papers to write a fascinating book. Especially gripping is the intense human drama of the breakup of a lifelong friendship between Justice Blackmun and Chief Justice Warren Burger."—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"Anyone who wants to understand the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court and anyone who hopes to grasp the subtle ways that personal philosophy and psychology combine with the sometimes impersonal logic of the law to shape the outcomes of great legal battles, would do well to read Linda Greenhouse's unpretentious but powerful story of Harry Blackmun. Greenhouse, in a jewel fully worthy of her reputation as the best journalist ever to have covered the work of the Supreme Court, proves to be as able a biographer as she is a reporter. Becoming Justice Blackmun is a brilliant and penetrating study of how unsought challenge and controversy can, in the most modest of men, bring out a measure of true greatness."—Laurence Tribe

"Harry Blackmun was the model public servant: hard-working, self-effacing, scrupulously honest, of a humorous bent, persnickety about language, ever re-examining his own thinking and dispositions, a patriot of process. Linda Greenhouse's elegant biography, a look at the professional life of the Justice in the blue Volkswagen, opens a window on the Court and on the antique notion of public service."—Garrison Keillor

"I raced through Linda Greenhouse's book as soon as I got my hands on it. Becoming Justice Blackmun is both gripping constitutional history and rich personal drama. The nation's finest Supreme Court reporter has produced a vivid and fascinating portrait of a complex man."—Jeffrey Toobin

"[An] illuminating study of Blackmun's life and intellectual history . . . Greenhouse, the New York Times's veteran Supreme Court watcher, draws primarily on Blackmun's massive personal archive to show how his authorship of the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade propelled him down several unexpected paths . . . The personality that emerges [here] is that of a self-effacing and scholarly judge, devoid of partisanship, willing to follow his ideas wherever they led him . . . Greenhouse sets a high standard in offering an intimate look both at the man and at the development of his judicial thought."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"An exceptionally readable biography of Justice Harry Blackmun, from his childhood to his service on the Supreme Court . . . Greenhouse portrays the evolution of Blackmun's judicial philosophy . . . In using Blackmun's files, correspondence, and papers, the author creates a revealing portrait of both the man himself and the inner workings of the Supreme Court, including his fractious relationship with Chief Justice Warren Burger . . . This small book is a valuable addition to the existing body of judicial biographies. High recommended."—Library Journal

"The life and times of a Supreme Court justice who resisted easy categorization, then and now. On his death in 1999, writes New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Greenhouse, Harry Blackmun gave the Library of Congress his papers, 'contained in 1,585 boxes that take up more than six hundred feet.' Drawing on this wealth of primary information, Greenhouse turns in a nuanced study of Blackmun as legal thinker and judge. Along the way, she offers revealing notes on Warren Burger, whose own papers are sealed until 2026; Burger, Blackmun's childhood friend and fellow Minnesotan, helped see Blackmun onto the bench . . . Greenhouse observes that their time spent together on the bench did ill for Blackmun's friendship with Burger, whom he came to regard as a poor administrator and shallow thinker; the animosity grew in the matter of United States v. Nixon, which bitterly divided the Court. So, too, would other issues—among them, toward the end of his career, the death penalty—and by Greenhouse's account Blackmun conducted himself well throughout them. Detailed and well considered: a welcome study of Blackmun's contributions to the law."—Kirkus Reviews

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Read an Excerpt

From Becoming Justice Blackmun:
Planned Parenthood v. Casey was argued on April 22, 1992. As in the Webster case three years earlier, it was not clear from the discussion at the conference whether Roe v. Wade itself was really on the...

Read the full excerpt


  • Linda Greenhouse

  • Linda Greenhouse has covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times since 1978 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for her coverage of the Court. She appears regularly on the PBS program Washington Week and lectures frequently on the Supreme Court at colleges and law schools. She graduated from Radcliffe College and holds a master of studies in law from Yale Law School. She lives outside Washington, D.C.