Justice Harry Blackmun

Justice Harry Blackmun joined the U.S. Supreme Court on June 9, 1970, replacing Justice Abe Fortas. Blackmun was born on November 12, 1908 in Illinois, but he grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In 1929, he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in mathematics. Blackmun stayed at Harvard to attend law school, from which he graduated in 1932. He spent the next quarter of a century in Minnesota, where he practiced law and taught at the University of Minnesota Law School, among other roles. During the 1950s, Blackmun worked as a lawyer for the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

In August 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower nominated Blackmun to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Senate confirmed him in the following month. Blackmun spent over a decade on the Eighth Circuit, writing more than 200 opinions.

On April 15, 1970, President Richard Nixon nominated Blackmun to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed him on May 12 in a 94-0 vote, and he took the judicial oath about a month later. Blackmun was not Nixon’s first choice for the seat, but two previous nominations had failed. The seat thus had remained vacant for over a year before he joined the Court.

Blackmun was considered a conservative jurist when he joined the Court, but he grew much more liberal as his tenure progressed. In 1986, for example, he dissented from the decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld a Georgia law criminalizing sodomy and thus set back LGBTQ+ rights. Shortly before he retired, Blackmun voiced the belief that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

However, Blackmun’s main legacy involves the constitutional right to abortion. Just three years after he joined the Supreme Court, his majority opinion in Roe v. Wade embedded this right in American law for nearly half a century. Blackmun felt that the constitutional right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protected the freedom of choice. However, he acknowledged the interests of the government in protecting the health of pregnant women and the lives of unborn children, so he developed a trimester framework for evaluating abortion laws. The Supreme Court abandoned the trimester framework in Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey in 1992, and it overturned Roe altogether in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in 2022.

Blackmun retired from the Supreme Court on August 3, 1994 and was replaced by Justice Stephen Breyer. He died on March 4, 1999 in Virginia. After lying in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court Building, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Selected Opinions by Justice Blackmun:

J.E.B. v. Alabama ex rel. T.B. (1994)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

The Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination in jury selection on the basis of gender, or on the assumption that an individual will be biased in a particular case solely because that person happens to be a woman or a man.

Darby v. Cisneros (1993)

Topic: Government Agencies

Federal courts do not have the authority to require a plaintiff to exhaust available administrative remedies before seeking judicial review under the APA when neither the relevant statute nor agency rules specifically mandate exhaustion as a prerequisite to judicial review.

Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992)

Topic: Free Speech

Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.

Eastman Kodak Co. v. Image Technical Services, Inc. (1992)

Topic: Antitrust

A defendant's lack of market power in the primary equipment market did not preclude, as a matter of law, the possibility of market power in derivative aftermarkets.

McCarthy v. Madigan (1992)

Topic: Government Agencies

In determining whether exhaustion of administrative remedies is required, a court must balance the interest of the individual in retaining prompt access to a federal judicial forum against countervailing institutional interests favoring exhaustion. The interests of the individual weigh heavily against requiring administrative exhaustion when requiring resort to the administrative remedy would occasion undue prejudice to the subsequent assertion of a court action, there is doubt as to whether the agency is empowered to grant effective relief, or the administrative body is shown to be biased or has otherwise predetermined the issue.

California v. Acevedo (1991)

Topic: Search & Seizure

In a search extending only to a container within a vehicle, the police may search the container without a warrant when they have probable cause to believe that it holds contraband or evidence.

Carnival Cruise Lines, Inc. v. Shute (1991)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

A non-negotiated forum clause in a passage contract may be enforceable even though it is not the subject of bargaining, although it is subject to judicial scrutiny for fundamental fairness.

Commissioner v. Indianapolis Power & Light Co. (1990)

Topic: Taxes

When a utility company required customers with suspect credit to make deposits with it to assure prompt payment of future electric bills, the deposits were not advance payments for electricity and were not taxable income to the utility company upon receipt. The company did not have the requisite complete dominion over them when they were made, which is the crucial point for determining taxable income.

Allegheny County v. ACLU (1989)

Topic: Religion

A creche display violated the Establishment Clause when the creche angel's words endorsed a patently Christian message, and nothing in the creche's setting detracted from that message.

Mistretta v. U.S. (1989)

Topic: Separation of Powers; Government Agencies

Congress did not violate the separation of powers principle by placing the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the judicial branch, requiring federal judges to serve on the Commission and to share their authority with non-judges, or empowering the President to appoint Commission members and to remove them for cause.

Illinois v. Krull (1987)

Topic: Search & Seizure

The Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule does not apply to evidence obtained by police who acted in objectively reasonable reliance on a statute authorizing warrantless administrative searches, which is subsequently found to violate the Fourth Amendment.

Commissioner v. Groetzinger (1987)

Topic: Taxes

To be engaged in a trade or business, the taxpayer must be involved in the activity with continuity and regularity, and the taxpayer's primary purpose for engaging in the activity must be for income or profit. A sporadic activity, a hobby, or an amusement diversion does not qualify.

Maine v. Taylor (1986)

Topic: Powers of Congress

If a state does not needlessly obstruct interstate trade or attempt to place itself in a position of economic isolation, it retains broad regulatory authority to protect the health and safety of its citizens and the integrity of its natural resources.

U.S. v. Hughes Properties, Inc. (1986)

Topic: Taxes

The “all events” test requires that before an expense can be regarded as “incurred” for federal income tax purposes, a liability must be fixed and absolute. Identification of the payee may be irrelevant if the obligation to pay exists. The event creating liability is the event that fixes the amount irrevocably.

Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985)

Topic: Powers of Congress

The states' continued role in the federal system is primarily guaranteed not by any externally imposed limits on the commerce power, but by the structure of the federal government itself.

Helicopteros Nacionales v. Hall (1984)

Topic: Lawsuits & Legal Procedures

Mere purchases, even if occurring at regular intervals, are not enough to warrant a state's assertion of personal jurisdiction over a non-resident corporation in a cause of action not related to the purchases.

Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc. (1983)

Topic: Labor & Employment

A law relates to an employee benefit plan for ERISA purposes if it has a connection with or reference to such a plan.

Commissioner v. Tufts (1983)

Topic: Taxes

When a taxpayer sells or disposes of property encumbered by a non-recourse obligation exceeding the fair market value of the property sold, they may be required to include in the “amount realized” the outstanding amount of the obligation. The fair market value of the property is irrelevant to this calculation.

Reeves, Inc. v. Stake (1980)

Topic: Powers of Congress

Nothing in the purposes animating the Commerce Clause prohibits a state, in the absence of congressional action, from participating in the market and exercising the right to favor its own citizens over others.

Lewis v. U.S. (1980)

Topic: Gun Rights

Congress could rationally conclude that any felony conviction, even an allegedly invalid conviction, is a sufficient basis on which to prohibit the possession of a firearm.

Fare v. Michael C. (1979)

Topic: Miranda Rights

A juvenile defendant's request for their probation officer was not a per se invocation of their Fifth Amendment rights under Miranda.

Franks v. Delaware (1978)

Topic: Search & Seizure

When a defendant makes a substantial preliminary showing that a false statement knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth, was included by the affiant in the warrant affidavit, and if the allegedly false statement is necessary to the finding of probable cause, the Fourth Amendment requires that a hearing be held at the defendant's request.

Frank Lyon Co. v. U.S. (1978)

Topic: Taxes

When there is a genuine multiple-party transaction with economic substance that is compelled or encouraged by business or regulatory realities, that is imbued with tax-independent considerations, and that is not shaped solely by tax-avoidance features to which meaningless labels are attached, the government should honor the allocation of rights and duties effectuated by the parties.

Planned Parenthood v. Danforth (1976)

Topic: Abortion & Reproductive Rights

A state may not constitutionally require the consent of the spouse as a condition for abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. (A state cannot delegate to a spouse a veto power that the state is absolutely and totally prohibited from exercising during the first trimester of pregnancy.)

Mathews v. Lucas (1976)

Topic: Equal Protection

The judicial scrutiny traditionally devoted to cases involving discrimination along lines of race or national origin is not required when legislation treats legitimate and illegitimate offspring differently.

Andresen v. Maryland (1976)

Topic: Search & Seizure

Although the Fifth Amendment may protect an individual from complying with a subpoena for the production of their personal records in their possession, a seizure of the same materials by law enforcement officers is different because the individual against whom the search is directed is not required to aid in the discovery, production, or authentication of incriminating evidence.

Brown v. Illinois (1975)

Topic: Miranda Rights

State courts were in error in assuming that the Miranda warnings, by themselves, under Wong Sun v. U.S. always purge the taint of an illegal arrest.

U.S. v. Ash (1973)

Topic: Criminal Trials & Prosecutions

The Sixth Amendment does not grant an accused the right to have counsel present when the government conducts a post-indictment photographic display, containing a picture of the accused, for the purpose of allowing a witness to attempt an identification of the offender.

Doe v. Bolton (1973)

Topic: Abortion & Reproductive Rights

The requirement that a physician's decision to perform an abortion must rest upon “his best clinical judgment” of its necessity is not unconstitutionally vague.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

Topic: Due Process; Abortion & Reproductive Rights

The Due Process Clause protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy. Although the state cannot override that right, it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman's health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a compelling point at various stages of the woman's approach to term.

Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

When the Attorney General decides for a legitimate and bona fide reason not to waive the statutory exclusion of a foreign national under Section 212(a)(28) of the INA, courts will not look behind this decision or weigh it against the First Amendment interests of those who would personally communicate with the foreign national.

Flood v. Kuhn (1972)

Topic: Antitrust

The longstanding exemption of professional baseball from the antitrust laws is an established aberration in light of the Court's holding that other interstate professional sports are not similarly exempt. However, Congress has acquiesced in the exemption, and it is entitled to the benefit of stare decisis.

Graham v. Richardson (1971)

Topic: Immigration & National Security

State statutes that deny welfare benefits to resident foreign nationals, or to foreign nationals who have not resided in the U.S. for a specified number of years, violate the Equal Protection Clause and encroach on the exclusive federal power over the entrance and residence of foreign nationals.