Saturday, August 20, 2005

Blackmun's slide into the liberal cauldron

This is the story of two once fast friends who became distant and how, serving as U.S. Supreme Court justices, they affected legal policy. Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun were reared six blocks apart in the Dayton's Bluff section of St. Paul, a blue-collar neighborhood that has seen better days -- a neighborhood I used to pass often on the way to work.

They met in kindergarten, went to grade school and Sunday school together, played softball and tennis (Burger was the better athlete), double-dated (Burger was the handsomer of the two) and went to their high school proms together. Each took pleasure at the other's good fortune. Blackmun was best man at Burger's wedding.

Both got law degrees -- Burger from the University of Minnesota, Blackmun from Harvard. Burger, a liberal Republican, worked in a small St. Paul firm and dabbled in politics. Blackmun, rather introverted, rose slowly in a prestigious Minneapolis firm. In July 1952, Burger, a Harold Stassen delegate to the GOP convention, negotiated a last-minute switch to Dwight D. Eisenhower, giving the general enough votes to win the presidential nomination on the first ballot. In return, Burger got a job in the Justice Department, and later an appellate court judgeship.

Blackmun was moving ahead, too, but not in politics, becoming general counsel to the prestigious Mayo Clinic. The New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse was given posthumous private access to Blackmun's papers. In her brilliant book, Becoming Justice Blackmun, (Times Books, 2005), they show a torturously insecure but pettily oversensitive man as he fights depression and chafes at his inability to write quickly.

Burger wangles an appellate appointment for the introverted Blackmun, and both of them dream of serving on the Supreme Court together. Then President Richard Nixon names Burger chief justice. Burger contrives to get Blackmun named to the court. Before he names him, Nixon asks Blackmun a strange (to Blackmun) question: Is your wife likely to be influenced by the Georgetown liberal crowd? Blackmun says his wife is unconcerned about Georgetown's praise. But Harry?

In the first court session, Blackmun was happy to vote with Burger 80 percent of the time. Then his law clerks told him his nickname was ''Hip-pocket Harry'' because Burger could always count on his vote. The media called them the "Minnesota Twins." Deftly, slowly, liberal Justices William O. Douglas, William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall suffused Blackmun with praise, encouraging him to dissent from his old friend. Greenhouse treats the issue gingerly, but Bob Woodward spells it out explicitly in The Brethren (Simon & Schuster, 1979). Then comes the abortion issue.

In the abortion conference, the liberals favor striking down state abortion laws, but Burger favors keeping them. Blackmun favors tinkering with them on more narrow grounds. Burger tilts toward pro choice, and by that act can give the assignment to write the decision on Roe vs. Wade to Blackmun. The Douglas-Brennan-Marshall trio is pleased, telling Blackmun that only he has the towering intellectual prowess to write it. Now it's clear that Blackmun sees Roe vs. Wade as his main chance to separate from Burger. Blackmun flies to Rochester and writes slowly in the Mayo Clinic library.

In that opinion, Blackmun writes: ''The constitution does not explicitly mention any right of privacy." But there are ''emanations'' and "penumbras" in the Bill of Rights, the Fourth, Fifth and Ninth amendments. Voila! He has composed a freshly invented right! With that decision, the break with Burger becomes complete.

Writes Greenhouse: Blackmun's ''the person American women look to -- the champion not only of abortion rights but of women's rights in general." Burger dies and Blackmun doesn't go to the funeral. Roe vs. Wade is the "law of the land" or, as scholar Mark Levin says, the methodical seduction of a chronically insecure man by flattery, of a man who desperately wanted to be loved by all those who adore the New York Times.

There's a name for it: the Greenhouse Effect.

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