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Paper Chase

The papers of Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun (1908-1999) were opened to the public on March 4, 2004. Although Blackmun wrote many well-known decisions for the court, his most famous decision is the one he penned for the majority in Roe v. Wade, which stated that the 14th Amendment's right to privacy included a woman's right to an abortion.

Howard Brodie, artist, Thomas R. Gray, 'The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia ...,' 1832.

Blackmun was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, and he served until his retirement in 1994 at the age of 85. In May 1997, Blackmun gave his papers to the Library of Congress, where they joined the papers of 38 other justices and chief justices of the court, including those of John Marshall, Roger B. Taney, Charles Evans Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, Earl Warren and Hugo Black. 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.

Blackmun was a contemporary, for varying amounts of time, of seven of the current associate justices who sit on the Supreme Court: John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In one of the oral history interviews with Justice Blackmun conducted by Yale Law School Professor Harold Hongju Koh, a former Blackmun law clerk, Blackmun reminisced about his introduction to the court as an associate justice:

"The first time I joined everybody in my robe must have been the ninth day of June 1970, when I came down and was sworn in. I remember walking into the conference room, and there were these eight black-robed figures standing around with names like Hugo Lafayette Black, and William Orville Douglas, and William James Brennan Jr., and John Marshall Harlan and all the rest. Names that any law student, or any lawyer in those days knew well, knew about. Made me wonder what I was doing there. They were very kind at the time and made me feel welcome."

Members of the Supreme Court rarely subject themselves to exhaustive interviews. But from July 1994 through December 1995, Justice Blackmun allowed himself to be interviewed for more than 30 hours by Koh. In the first of 38 tapes, Blackmun tells Koh how he enjoys looking out his Supreme Court office window as he reads the sports pages and how "I can look outside and see who is picketing us."

Highlights of the Blackmun Papers include a Jan. 16, 1973, note from Blackmun to Justice Potter Stewart discussing when the abortion cases Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton would be publicly announced. The bottom of the note also contains a comment from Stewart.

Of the more than 128 million items in the Library of Congress, more than 57 million of those are manuscripts, far exceeding the some 29 million books and other printed materials, 2.7 million recordings, 12 million photographs, 4.8 million maps and 5 million music items. Many of these manuscripts are online in the American Memory Web site. Click on the "Collection Finder" link at the upper right of the page and then click on "Manuscripts" in the shaded column on the right. You will see that 45 American Memory presentations contain manuscript material.

These include the "African-American Odyssey," "The Leonard Bernstein Collection," "The Frederick Douglass Papers," "Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song," "Hispano Music and Culture," "Slave Narratives" and "The Wilbur and Orville Wright Papers."

There's even a presentation celebrating the centennial in 1999 of the Manuscript Division, called "Words and Deeds in American History."


A. Howard Brodie, artist, "Supreme Ct. Assoc. Justice Harry Blackmun / Brodie, Wash.," ca. 1974. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No. LC-USZC2-1264 (color film copy slide)

B. Thomas R. Gray, "The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia ...," 1832. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Reproduction information: Contact Rare Book and Special Collections Division to determine availability. Send e-mail to: [email protected]


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