Sunday, July 09, 2006

Blackmun and Beyond: Columnist Recalls Covering the U.S. Supreme Court and One of its Most Unique Justices

By Matt Braun, mbraun@law.gwu.edu

Those who attended Plenary Session I on Sunday afternoon were treated to a heartfelt account of how library research changed a well-known journalist’s career.

Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times’ Supreme Court and Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, spoke of how interpreting a large finding aid and mounds of documents held by the Library of Congress’ Manuscripts Division was a bit intimidating at first, and on how such work ultimately provided enough of a canvass for a colorful biography on former Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

The book, Becoming Justice Blackmun, was published in May 2005 and sprouted from a series of articles Greenhouse wrote coinciding with the release of Justice Blackmun’s personal and working papers to the Library of Congress in 2004. The entire project was something new for Greenhouse, who over the years has covered the Court in great detail, but never the life and career of one specific justice.

Working with a few research assistants and consulting at times with Nina Totenberg, who covered the release of the Blackmun papers for National Public Radio, Greenhouse poured over opinions, notes, and correspondences concerning the justice who notoriously saved his documents, and is best known for authoring the majority opinion in the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.

Highlights of her research included finding a memo written by Blackmun stating that the Roe decision might have an unsettling effect on the nation “for awhile,” and locating correspondence between Blackmun and former Justice Hugo Black illustrating that Black, a seasoned veteran of the Court, felt that the newcomer Blackmun was unacceptably slow in writing his opinions.
Greenhouse’s book covers the career of Justice Blackmun all the way from his days as a neophyte attorney in Minnesota through his retirement from the Court in 1994. While she still wants to concentrate on her “day job” as Supreme Court correspondent, Greenhouse was clear that using the Harry A. Blackmun Collection at the Library of Congress and writing her book was a unique and invaluable experience, and an interesting departure from covering oral arguments and reading court briefs.


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