The Quiet Man Who Wrote Roe v. Wade

Two-and-a-half years after writing the majority opinion in the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun gave a rare interview to a reporter from his home state of Minnesota. In it, he spoke publicly for the first time about the controversial decision that continues to roil the political waters 38 years later.

I know because I was that reporter. In an hour-long interview in July 1975, Blackmun told me he had no regrets about his role in the decision or in the decision itself, despite the avalanche of criticism and hate mail he received afterwards, even to the end of his life in 1999.

But it was also clear that he had agonized over the opinion he wrote summing up the majority view in the historic decision handed down on Jan. 22, 1993.

Dressed informally in a brown sweater and slacks with his feet perched on a black leather stool in the Olympian majesty of his Supreme Court chambers, the 66-year-old mild-mannered jurist predicted that the decision "will be regarded as one of the worst mistakes in the court's history, or one of its great decisions."

He discussed a wide range of subjects during the interview, which he granted because I had covered him as a Washington correspondent for Minnesota newspapers since he arrived on the Court five years earlier.

He spoke quietly but candidly about the high court. He said the quality of some decisions had suffered because of the court's heavy caseload. He said he had great respect for his colleagues, especially Justice William O. Douglas, although he conspicuously omitted his fellow Minnesotan, Chief Justice Warren Burger. He said his time on the court had forced him to develop his legal philosophy "farther than ever before." And he described himself as the most liberal of the four justices appointed by President Nixon.

But the soft-spoken Blackmun came closest to showing emotion when he talked about the decision now enshrined in American legal history. Leaning his chair back against a bookcase, Blackmun complained that he was unfairly criticized for his central, but involuntary, role in the 7-2 decision.

"People personalized the decision," he said. "They think I'm responsible for it. There were seven votes there. It wasn't five-to-four. There were seven votes for it."

He added, "I happened to have been given the unenviable assignment of writing it. You know there are some cases where you sense it's not a great privilege to write them, but you have to. They're here and we have to decide them and somebody has to write them."

So what was it, I asked -- a historically bad decision like Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that approved the Jim Crow laws in the South that took 60 years to overturn and inspired Justice John Marshall Harlan's great, but futile, dissent that "Our Constitution is color blind"?

Or was it one of the court's great decision like those handed down in the 1950s and 60s that outlawed segregated public schools, ordered police to read a suspect his constitutional rights, and required poor defendants to be provided competent lawyers?

"Oh, I can't evaluate," said the man who occupied the same seat once held by such legendary jurists as Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cardozo and Oliver Wendell Holmes. "I'm firm in what I've said despite the abusive correspondence I get."

Justice Blackmun, who retired in 1994 and died at the age of 95, was succeeded by Stephen Breyer. In March 2004, on the fifth anniversary of his death, his files, containing more than a half-million items, were made public. I like to think that one of those boxes contains my interview with him.