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Justice Blackmun - the 'Harry' I knew

Harry Blackmun, who retired from the Supreme Court in 1994 after 22 years on the bench, is gone. The Blackmun I first knew in the early '80s was the Aspen Blackmun who asked to be addressed as "Harry."

Each summer he would preside over an Aspen Institute seminar on "Justice and Society." The climax of the annual seminar came on the last day when he would give an hour-long off-the-record briefing on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision he had written legalizing abortion.

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I guess off-the-record restrictions don't apply any more, and so I can report that Blackmun was depressed by the avalanche of hatred that his decision had generated. Letters calling him "murderer," "butcher of Dachau," "Pontius Pilate." The greatest volume of mail ever received by the court on one subject. Some of the letters were threatening, and the FBI was called in in 1985 when a shot was fired into his apartment window in Arlington, Va.

In the '80s, Blackmun grew gloomier each year about the fate of Roe v. Wade.

In his 1991 Aspen seminar, he spoke of Roe almost in the past tense, saying that, even if it were reversed, his consolation would be that at least it had helped one generation of women.

But then in 1992, Roe was - in effect - upheld in a 5-to-4 decision of the court. That summer, Blackmun pointed to the emergence of a "new center" in the court - Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and Sandra Day O'Connor. His spirits had clearly brightened. He was ready now to take on capital punishment, which he abhorred.

In 1982, Blackmun sat for a taped interview with me for CNN in his Supreme Court chamber. His purpose, he said, was to demystify the court, to bring it closer to the people.

A baseball fan, he joked about being President Nixon's "third pick" after the Senate had rejected two nominees.

He joked also about how he was expected to be a conservative voice, one of the "Minnesota Twins" with Chief Justice Warren Burger.

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But in time, his opinions were far left of Burger's, and no one said "Minnesota Twins" anymore.

On a walk in Aspen in 1990, he confided to me that he was thinking of retiring, but not as long as there was a Republican in the White House to name his successor. And so he waited until 1994, by now a Clintonian, no longer a Nixonian.

When he appeared with President Clinton in the White House in April 1994, to announce his retirement, Mr. Clinton talked about him warmly as a voice of humanity.

I asked Harry how he was going to get along without his daily fix of hate mail. There was laughter from those assembled, but Blackmun said he had not quite heard my question. Mr. Clinton repeated it for him, then turned to the audience and said, "He offered to take some of mine."

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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