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Justice Blackmun, who wrote Roe v. Wade decision, was deeply connected to Rochester and Mayo Clinic

Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, a former Mayo Clinic attorney and Rochester resident, wrote the controversial 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. A year after he wrote it, Blackmun described it as “one of the worst mistakes in the court’s history or one of its great decisions.”

Harry Blackmun
Archived newspaper clippings and the program from the "Harry Blackmun Day" celebration that was held in Rochester on Aug. 13, 1970 show how closely the Supreme Court Justice who wrote the "Roe v. Wade" decision was connected to Mayo Clinic and Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — “One of the worst mistakes in the court’s history or one of its great decisions.”

That's how Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who was also a former Mayo Clinic attorney and former director of Methodist Hospital in Rochester, described the controversial 1973 Roe v. Wade decision a year after he wrote it.

blackmun.jpg
Harry Blackmun

While the current Supreme Court seems to be moving to overturn Roe v. Wade, the man with deep connections to Rochester and Mayo Clinic never doubted the validity of the decision.

In an in-depth interview in 1975, Blackmun expounded more on that idea.

“I’m firm in what I’ve said despite the abusive correspondence I continue to get,” he said at the time. He “would always hope that law and morality in our system are, and I use a mathematical term, ‘congruent,’ which means they certainly overlap in large part, but they're not identical.”

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In the immediate wake of the 1973 decision, Blackmun said he received 60,000 pieces of hate mail, and he claimed to have read every letter.

He lived in Rochester from 1950 to 1970. Blackmun was a prominent attorney and later judge, who served as legal counsel for Mayo Clinic from 1950 to 1959. Blackmun's work contributed to the development of the clinic, especially in the establishment of Rochester Methodist Hospital.

He reportedly spent a lot of time learning about medical procedures at Mayo Clinic and was a legal advocate for health care providers. While he and his wife, Dottie, had been living in Washington, D.C., since his unanimous appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, Blackmun returned to Rochester while working on the Roe v. Wade decision.

In January, 1973, the Post Bulletin reported that Blackmun “spent almost every day for two weeks late last August and early September in Mayo’s medical library researching the opinion.”

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While it was a decision that angered many religious organizations, Blackmun was an active member of the Christ United Methodist Church in Rochester. In 1975, he was invited to speak at the annual meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops in St. Paul.

He told the bishops that the decision “was a constitutional analysis, not a moral one, but law has moral overtones, and a conflict between morality and constitutional law at times would seem to be inevitable.”

A popular Rochester leader, often described as wearing cardigan sweaters, Blackmun had an office in the Rochester Towers on Second Street. He and his wife lived with their three daughters in a 10-room, split-level house on Skyline Drive Southwest.

Blackmun served on boards that managed the Rochester Airport Co., the Kahler Hotel Corp., and Rochester Methodist Hospital.

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To celebrate his appointment to the high court, a “Harry Blackmun Day” event was held at the Kahler Hotel on Aug. 13, 1970. Rochester Mayor D. Dewey Day presented him with a key to the city; Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce President David Bach gave him an honorary life membership.

President Richard Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1970, after two other nominations failed to be approved.

“I wasn’t the first choice. I was No. 3. That’s a very humbling experience and no one ever forgets,” Blackmun told an audience at St. Paul Mechanic Arts High School in St. Paul in 1974.

Despite being appointed by a Republican, Blackmun eventually became known as the most liberal judge on the court. Later in his career, an increasingly conservative court often left Blackmun in the minority. He was the sole dissenter in a 1993 ruling that the U.S. could intercept Haitian refugees and forcibly return them to their country without a hearing.

He retired from the court in 1994. In 1997, Blackmun played Justice Joseph Story in the film "Amistad," becoming the first Supreme Court justice to appear in a motion picture. He died in 1999.

Jeff Kiger tracks business action in Rochester and southeastern Minnesota every day in "Heard on the Street." Send tips to jkiger@postbulletin.com or via Twitter to @whereskiger . You can call him at 507-285-7798.

Jeff Kiger writes a daily column, "Heard on the Street," in addition to writing articles about local businesses, Mayo Clinic, IBM, Hormel Foods, Crenlo and others. He has worked in Rochester for the Post Bulletin since 1999. Readers can reach Jeff at 507-285-7798 or jkiger@postbulletin.com.
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