By DAUN VAN EE
The papers of Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun, which are expected to add to knowledge of the court's interpretation of constitutional law over three decades, opened to the public on Thursday, March 4, in the Library's Manuscript Division Reading Room.
In 1997, Justice Blackmun gave his personal papers to the United States for inclusion in the collections of the Library. At the time of his gift, Blackmun stipulated that the papers should not be opened to the general public until five years after his death; he died in Arlington, Va., on March 4, 1999. The terms of the instrument of gift authorized the executors of his estate to grant access to researchers prior to that time, and they gave advanced access to three media outlets in early 2004, before the collection opened to the public.
Anticipating wide public interest in this collection, which documents the largely hidden world of judicial decision-making at the highest level, the Library temporarily altered its research procedures. To accommodate an overflow of readers, the Manuscript Division scheduled three four-hour shifts, 8:30 a.m.- 9:30 p.m. as needed, for March 4. The Library's Public Affairs Office also established a temporary media center to provide access to members of the press to electronic copies of the most sought-after case files; paper copies of a complete guide to the collection; and videotaped interviews with Blackmun conducted by his former law clerk and one of the executors of his estate, Harold Hongju Koh, who is now dean of the Yale Law School.
Organized in 1,585 containers occupying 630 linear feet of shelving, the Blackmun Papers comprise one of the largest federal judicial collections in the Library of Congress. Only the William O. Douglas Papers, housed in 1,791 boxes taking 715 linear feet, is larger.
Blackmun's papers will add to knowledge of some of the Supreme Court's greatest figures. Appointed to the Supreme Court by President Richard Nixon in 1970, Blackmun served for 24 years until his retirement from the court in 1994 at the age of 85. His colleagues on the bench included Chief Justices Warren E. Burger (a close personal friend from Minnesota) and William H. Rehnquist; he also sat with such influential associate justices as Douglas, Hugo L. Black, William J. Brennan, Byron R. White and Thurgood Marshall. For varying periods of time, Blackmun was a contemporary of seven of the associate justices currently on the court: John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The collection covers all aspects of Blackmun's life. The earliest files contain material from his days as a high school, college and law school student. Included are diaries, family letters, report cards, drawings, dance cards and essays. He is known for having saved "everything."
Blackmun's early career is documented by additional diary entries, as well as correspondence, news clippings, speeches and writings. Of particular interest are letters to and from Blackmun's boyhood friend, Warren Burger, the future chief justice. An additional section of the collection, consisting of 46 boxes of records and correspondence, covers Blackmun's service on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, from 1959 to 1970.
Information contained in the largest portion of the collection, the Supreme Court file, will greatly increase knowledge of the decision-making processes in modern constitutional law. Blackmun helped decide the most important cases of the Burger Court (1969-1986); he was also a jurist for the first eight years that the court operated under the leadership of William H. Rehnquist, Burger's successor as chief justice of the United States. Blackmun participated in the Pentagon Papers case (New York Times v. U.S., 1971), the Watergate Tapes case (U.S. v. Nixon, 1974) and other constitutional controversies about congressional powers and federal-state relations.
Blackmun also played an important role in a number of death-penalty decisions. Notable among these were two Georgia cases that first established, and then ended, a short-lived moratorium on capital punishment. Near the end of his career, Blackmun, abandoning his earlier acquiescence in death penalties, recorded a passionate refusal to uphold any more judicial executions: "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."
However, Justice Blackmun is perhaps best known for his landmark opinion in the abortion-rights cases of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton (1973). Using a variety of documents now available for the first time in the Blackmun Papers, researchers will be able to trace the development of the ideas expressed in Blackmun's determination for the court that a constitutional right to privacy, under the U.S. Constitution, protected a woman's right to have an abortion.
There is also much new material regarding the later abortion-rights case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992). In that decision, the court, while declining to overturn Roe v. Wade, nevertheless upheld most of the restrictions detailed by a Pennsylvania law governing abortions. Blackmun, who maintained his belief in the constitutional basis for abortion rights, differed from his colleagues and wrote that the Pennsylvania law had eroded fundamental rights.
The Blackmun collection features a remarkable variety of materials documenting his life and work while he served on the Supreme Court. Among the most important items are letters, which include a sampling of mail from members of the public who opposed the court's ruling in Roe v. Wade; handwritten notes exchanged between the justices as they heard oral arguments; sheets recording the votes and reasoning of various justices during their conferences; letters from justices asking for concurrences in opinions; memos prepared by clerks summarizing and making recommendations regarding cases that might come before the court; legal briefs; and draft opinions. Many of these documents bear Blackmun's personal emendations and commentaries—including candid appraisals of opinions drafted by others.
There is also an indexed, 514-page transcript of the interviews that Koh conducted with Blackmun from July 1994 to December 1995. Electronic access to digital versions of the videotaped interviews is provided in the Manuscript Division Reading Room and online at www.loc.gov/rr/mss/blackmun/. A searchable finding aid to the collection is also available on the Web site; printed copies are available in the Manuscript Division Reading Room.
The Blackmun collection can be used by registered researchers in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division Reading Room, James Madison Building.
Daun van Ee is a historical specialist in the Library's Manuscript Division