Today in 1970: Senate votes to confirm Harry Blackmun

May 12, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryAs Senate Republicans gear up to grill Obama’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan, it’s worth remembering that hard-fought Senate confirmation hearings are nothing new.

Forty years ago today, the Senate confirmed Harry Blackmun to the Supreme Court after rejecting Nixon’s first two nominees. The two failed nominations were an embarrassment to Nixon, and the vacancy went unfilled for nearly a year before he finally nominated Blackmun, who thereafter referred to himself as “Old Number Three.”

Justice Harry BlackmunBlackmun was thought to be a reliable Republican. His nomination had the backing of Chief Justice Warren Burger, another conservative Nixon appointee. Blackmun and Burger had been friends since kindergarten, and Blackmun was best man in Burger’s wedding.

No one could have guessed that, after just three years on the Supreme Court, Blackmun would pen the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade. This single decision made him the most vilified Supreme Court justice in history; Blackmun received more than 6,000 pieces of hate mail, along with numerous death threats.

Blackmun provides a textbook example of how a person’s judicial philosophy can turn 180 degrees. In baseball, Blackmun was a fan of those perennial underdogs, the Chicago Cubs – and according to a  Time magazine article from 1994 (the year Blackmun retired), “he came to defend the underdogs in life: blacks, women, gays, aliens, Native Americans.”

“Having been appointed by a Republican president and being accused now of being a flaming liberal, the Republicans think I’m a traitor and the Democrats don’t trust me,” Blackmun once said. “And so I twist in the wind, beholden to no one – and that’s just exactly where I want to be.”

Westlaw users: See the full text of Justice Blackmun’s Roe v. Wade opinion (93 S.Ct. 705) on Westlaw. (Requires sign-in)