Justice Harry Blackmun's Papers
Documents, Oral History Reveal Supreme Court's Inner Workings

Video Oral History Video: Blackmun Discusses 'Roe v. Wade'

View photo gallery Photo Gallery: Documents from the Blackmun Files

Listen Web Extra: Blackmun on 'Roe v. Wade' and His Experience on the Court

Listen Web Extra: Blackmun on Tensions with Chief Justice Burger Over the Nixon Tapes

Justice Harry Blackmun

Justice Harry Blackmun answers questions in 1995 as part of his oral history.
Credit: The Justice Harry A. Blackmun Oral History Project

Video Video: Blackmun gives a tour of his Supreme Court chambers

Video Video: Blackmun reflects on his life on the court

Blackmun Oral History Audio

Listen On the possibility that 'Roe v. Wade' would be overturned

Listen Reflecting on 'Roe v. Wade'

Listen Recalling his early days on the Supreme Court

Listen On his shift against the death penalty

Listen On meeting with President Nixon on his nomination to the court

Listen On the arrival on the court of Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female justice

Listen On the justices wagering on the outcome of the 1992 election

Listen On pornographic film viewings at the court

Listen On what justices do when arguments before them get boring

Listen On humorous liberties he took as 'acting chief justice'

Boxes of Blackmun's papers line shelves at the Library of Congress.

Blackmun's papers fill 1,576 boxes at the Library of Congress.
Credit: Avie Schneider, NPR

Blackmun Bio

• Born Nov. 12, 1908, in Nashville, Ill.
• Grew up in St. Paul, Minn.
• Graduated Harvard Law School, 1932
• Served on U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit, 1959-70
• Nominated to Supreme Court by President Nixon
• Sworn in as associate justice June 9, 1970
Roe v. Wade opinion issued Jan. 22, 1973
• Retired Aug. 3, 1994
• Died March 4, 1999

This series was produced by Anne Hawke and edited by Barbara Campbell, with editorial assistance from Noah Falk and engineering by Josh Rogosin.

'The New York Times':
The Blackmun Papers

Documents Reveal the Evolution of a Supreme Court Justice

Friends for Decades, but Years on Court Left Them Strangers

March 2004 -- Five years after his death, the accumulated papers of Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights opinion, become public. NPR's Nina Totenberg was the only broadcast journalist granted advance access to the papers, which are housed in 1,576 boxes at the Library of Congress. In a series of reports, Totenberg reports on the inner workings of the court as revealed in the mountain of files and 38 hours of oral history recorded by Blackmun.

In the Series:

Blackmun and Burger Grow Apart
Blackmun and Chief Justice Warren Burger had been friends since childhood. But resentments built between them during their years on the court together.
All Things Considered, March 8, 2004

Blackmun and Nixon
In his oral history, Blackmun describes the strange scene at the White House when President Nixon invited him to discuss his nomination to the court. Nixon quizzed Blackmun about his net worth and his wife's social skills. Four years later, Blackmun and the other justices had Nixon's fate in their hands when they weighed the Watergate tapes case.
Morning Edition, March 8, 2004

Humor in the Court
Most of the business of the nation's highest court is deadly serious, but members occasionally allow themselves a little levity. As acting chief justice, Blackmun once scheduled square dancing at the Supreme Court building and ordered the court cat to chase Boris, "the rat upstairs."
All Things Considered, March 7, 2004

Parsing School Prayer
The court's deliberations over the constitutionality of prayers at public school graduations show how much the court agonizes -- and sometimes battles -- over the exact wording of its decisions.
Weekend Edition Sunday, March 7, 2004

Blackmun's Shift Against the Death Penalty
Blackmun started out as a firm believer in capital punishment. But toward the end of his 24-year term he wrote a dissenting opinion, saying it could no longer be constitutionally imposed. Totenberg reports on how he came to change his mind.
Weekend Edition Saturday, March 6, 2004

Behind the 'Roe' Decision
Blackmun's files show how the assignment fell to him to write the Roe v. Wade decision, even though he was the court's most junior justice at the time. Blackmun referred in the opinion to the emotional nature of the issue of abortion, violating advice he had received as a newcomer not to agonize in public about court decisions.
All Things Considered, March 5, 2004

'An Arranged Marriage of Nine'
Blackmun's files reveal the bickering and joviality among the Supreme Court's nine members. In one note, Justice Antonin Scalia urges a sleepy Blackmun: "Harry, stay awake!" Blackmun also discloses that the justices had a betting pool on the 1992 presidential election.
Morning Edition, March 5, 2004

History in the Files
Blackmun's papers, which include notes he and other justices jotted to each other during oral arguments, show a human, often humorous, side to the court. They also shed light on dramatic legal battles, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist's repeated efforts to weaken Roe.
All Things Considered, March 4, 2004

Vote Switching on the Court
Even as they are writing an opinion one way, Supreme Court justices are sometimes persuaded to change their vote. Blackmun papers' reveal for the first time that in 1992 Justice Anthony Kennedy was nearly a fifth vote to all but overturn Roe v. Wade.
Day to Day, March 4, 2004

The Battle to Preserve 'Roe'
The Supreme Court came close in 1992 to virtually overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion-rights opinion authored by Blackmun nearly two decades earlier, his papers reveal. Totenberg reports on shifts within the court that allowed the Roe ruling to be maintained.
Morning Edition, March 4, 2004

Related NPR Stories

View this itemNina Totenberg Discusses the Release of Blackmun's Files

View this item30th Anniversary of 'Roe v. Wade'

View this itemTotenberg Reflects on Blackmun Upon His Death in 1999

View this itemJustice Sandra Day O'Connor on Life on the Court

Web Resources

  • Library of Congress: The Harry A. Blackmun Papers

  • Blackmun Bio and Case Summaries

  • Supreme Court Historical Society: Justice Blackmun

  • Supreme Court Historical Society: A History of the Burger Court

  • Remarks by President Clinton and Blackmun on the Justice's 1994 Resignation from the Supreme Court