In the wake of Justice Blackmun's death, much of the emphasis in the press is on his place in the history of the Supreme Court. Justice Blackmun's law clerks certainly respect his place in history. Indeed, many of us owe our careers just to having been associated with him. But over the weekend following his death, Justice Blackmun's law clerks have been thinking about Harry Blackmun the human being.
Throughout his life, Harry Blackmun worked hard. As a young man in Minnesota, he studied to win a scholarship to Harvard. In college, he worked while attending classes, graduated with honors, and went on to Harvard Law School. His youthful habits followed him the rest of his life. As a Justice in his 70s, his day began early; he arrived at the Court before 8:00 a.m. and joined his clerks for breakfast. Almost every day, he worked through lunch in his private office. At 5:00 p.m., he took an exercise break, but returned to his Chambers for more reading and research. According to Mrs. Blackmun, once he arrived at home, he worked until she rang a bell signaling a 10-minute warning prior to dinner. After dinner, he was back at the briefs for the next day's cases, sometimes reading while watching a football game with the sound turned off. On the weekends, he worked what the rest of us would consider a normal work schedule.
Harry Blackmun set high standards for himself and those who worked with him. His clerks often joke about the grammatical corrections he made on their bench memos and his insistence upon avoiding mistakes in diction. These small personality traits reflected his dedication to do the very best he could at every job he undertook. He diligently worked to read every brief, to examine every cited case, to reply appropriately to letters written to him, and to deliver speeches that would have meaning for each audience he addressed.
Harry Blackmun was concerned about his fellow human beings. He was not a gregarious backslapper. But he examined his cases to take into account how they affected the every day lives of his fellow human beings. At breakfast at the Supreme Court, he was quick with a warm and quiet smile for Court personnel, passing acquaintances, and curious tourists. Upon the birth or adoption of a child, each clerk received a letter of congratulation from Justice Blackmun, a keepsake for the next generation.
Harry Blackmun did not assume that he had all the answers. His hard work was a reflection of the fact that he believed he needed to master the precedents, the legislative or constitutional history, and the facts to decide what the outcome of a case should be. He listened to other Justices, and he was willing to rethink his positions.
And it is certainly true, as has often been said, that Harry Blackmun was humble. Justice Blackmun was President Nixon's third choice after two nominees failed in the Senate, and observers frequently note that he called himself "Old Number 3." He was not merely disarming his listeners with self-effacing modesty. He was pointing out that he had risen to this office through an unlikely sequence of events. He treated his work as a Justice as an unexpected treasure. His humility led him to work even harder to honor the office he had the privilege to hold.
When we were beginning our careers, we law clerks were excited to have the chance to work with a Supreme Court Justice. Hard work, high standards, concern for fellow human beings, and humility are desirable qualities in a Justice, but they are also the values of a good and decent person. In the end, we know that we had the privilege to work around a fine man.
Law Clerk to Justice Harry A. Blackmun, 1981-82
Wyche, Burgess, Freeman & Parham, P.A.
Greenville, South Carolina