Blackmun Legacy Honored
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 1999; Page A3
The U.S. Supreme Court, his law clerks and his family bade a final good night to retired Justice Harry A. Blackmun yesterday, remembering him as a justice of the people whose compassion extended the sheltering protection of the law to women and society's outsiders.
At a two-hour funeral service at Washington's Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, eulogizers said there was little in Blackmun's ordinary Minnesota roots to foreshadow a culture-shaping legacy including the Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion legal nationwide.
"It is not often that a man or woman of 61, in a cloistered office, manages through the years to find, not a narrowing, but a broadening of mind, of outlook and of spirit," said Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who joined seven of the other eight current Supreme Court justices, retired Justice Byron R. White, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and dozens of adoring staff members in attendance. "But that is what Harry Blackmun found."
Former clerk Pamela Susan Karlan, one of the speakers, recalled the exacting, baseball-loving boss who regularly ate breakfast with his clerks--always one scrambled egg and two slices of raisin toast.
But, Karlan said, Blackmun never ceased displaying an "amazing" delight in new things, such as the time he got himself invited to a Passover dinner by remarking to his clerks that he'd always wished he'd gone to a seder.
"By being with him, we learned about ourselves," Karlan said. "He appealed, in the words of his hero Abraham Lincoln, to the better angels of our individual natures."
Blackmun, who served nearly a quarter-century on the high court, from 1970 to 1994, died Thursday at age 90. His tenure marked a time of wrenching ideological change on the court and in the nation, an era in which the Nixon-appointed jurist became the Supreme Court's most liberal member.
Yesterday's service, punctuated by lullabies he often sang to his children as performed by fellow Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, showed that Blackmun's public decisions were shaped by personal sadness, his humility laced with what one of his daughters called a touch of insecurity.
A widow raised his childhood friend, later Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, and his favorite aunt was divorced when her husband was imprisoned for embezzlement, said Nancy Blackmun.
"The single mothers he knew personally in his formative years created an awareness of the burdens women bear alone," Blackmun said, an awareness "reflected in the kind of thinking about women's needs and rights found later" on the court.
Blackmun knew that his place in history would be tied to his 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion. He received tens of thousands of letters afterward, including one urging his resignation, recalled Breyer, who succeeded him on the court. Blackmun replied: "Dear Sir, No. Sincerely, Harry A. Blackmun."
Blackmun attended Harvard on a partial scholarship that he augmented by working as a janitor and painter of handball courts. One speaker, Harold Koh, a former clerk and now assistant secretary of state, said that after a 1970 magazine article pegged him as a "white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Republican Rotarian Harvard Man from the suburbs," he joked, "It was the Rotarian part that really bugs me."
Koh also recalled that Blackmun hired more female law clerks than the rest of the court combined.
"Harry Blackmun's great spirit breathed life into the law--for the poor, for the dispossessed, for those living on what he called the 'raw edges of existence,' " added former clerk William Alden McDaniel Jr.
The Rev. William A. Holmes said Blackmun was a regular lay reader for Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, a student of theology who asked to be read the Psalms in his last weeks.
At the front of the church, Clinton sat in the pew accompanying Blackmun's widow, Dottie Blackmun, his three daughters and five grandchildren and their families.
The current and retired justices sat just to their right in the vaulted, candle-lighted church. Notably absent was Justice Antonin Scalia, who was out of town due to an illness in the family.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company