Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in a rare and wide-ranging television interview yesterday, said he was called a "butcher" and "murderer" in letters to the court after writing the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.
". . . You can think of any name to call someone, and I have been called it. Butcher of Dachau, murderer, Pontius Pilate, King Herod, you name it.
"Well, of course, it hurt at first," Blackmun said. "It doesn't hurt so much anymore, because I think one's hide gets a little, a little thick, to use the old phrase. On the other hand, I like to know what people are thinking. And the fact that 75 percent of the correspondence was critical doesn't mean that represents 75 percent of the population . . . ."
The subject of abortion came back to the court for review last week and is expected to again be one of the most controversial issues the justices will face.
In the hour-long interview with Daniel Schorr of the Cable News Network, Blackmun also discussed working with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, proposals to strip the court of its jurisdiction and the court's current ideological lineup.
Blackmun also discussed some of the angry and widely reported exchanges among justices, including him, in recent court opinions.
Court relationships are "very competitive," he said, "very clashing . . . in the sense that there are opposing views in most of our cases.
"The friendship and the mutual respect I believe continues. But if someone's going to play hardball with me, I'll play hardball back if I firmly believe in the position, although I suppose that if I were completely a gentleman I wouldn't."
Describing O'Connor as "able" and "articulate," Blackmun said she "gives no quarter; she asks no quarter and she's a fine justice."
When "Justice Potter Stewart was here, there were perhaps two on the right of the spectrum, two on the left of the spectrum and I like to think five of us in the center. Now one could say maybe its a two-four-three division."
Blackmun rejected the notion that he had moved into the liberal camp with Justices Thurgood Marshall and William J. Brennan Jr. as his recent voting record appears to suggest.
He also disclosed that last year, some justices heard a faint electronic ringing sound in their secret conference room and thought the room was bugged. Blackmun knew it was the sound of his hearing aid but, "feeling mischievous," waited a few days to tell the others. "The secret was out and we all laughed about it."
Only three justices -- Hugo Black, William O. Douglas and, when he announced retirement, Stewart -- have allowed themselves to be questioned for television while sitting on the high court although others have given speeches or interviews to print journalists.
Blackmun's comments were unusual beyond that because of his willingness to talk about his rulings and another justice. He would not take calls to explain why he agreed to give the interview, but Schorr said it stemmed from a friendship the two struck up at an Aspen Institute seminar two years ago.
In the interview, Blackmun said the court may "seem like a remote institution in the public eye . . . It's remote from access. And even when people walk up the front steps, they are rather overwhelmed by it, as I am, indeed, when I walk in almost every day, and I try once a day to come in the front steps."
On the abortion ruling, Roe vs. Wade, one of the most controversial in the court's history, Blackmun said he "pulled no punches" and admitted in the first few paragraphs that it was an emotional issue.
By so doing, he said he "did what Hugo Black had told me when I first came here not to do: Namely, never display any agony in the decision making. I think that's usually pretty good advice, but I purposefully did not follow it here."
The ruling was one of several responsible for attempts now in Congress to strip the court of jurisdiction over controversial social issues.
Blackmun said he did not "entertain any resentment" about those efforts. "I think history discloses that this frequently happens and, of course, Congress has this power if it chooses to exercise it, certainly up to a point anyway. And the court has always survived."
Blackmun became the first justice to publicly praise "The Brethren," the book written by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong that breached court secrecy.
Blackmun said his daughter Susan read the book and told him " 'for the first time in my life I think I have an idea of what your work amounts to and what you're trying to do.' " Blackmun added that "if that book did that for a lot of people, I think maybe it served a purpose."
Blackmun said he always tells law school classes "that if you're going to read 'The Brethren,' don't stop after 30 pages because I smell pretty bad for those 30 pages, but read the whole thing. And maybe personally and from a very selfish point of view, I think I'm not so bad after the full number of pages."