Blackmun, author of roe vs. wade, dies at 90
But his legacy lives
On the eve of the 10th anniversary of his most famous legal ruling, 72-year-old Harry Blackmun sat for an interview with a journalist and waxed philosophical about his place in history: "Author of the abortion decision," he repeated, slowly and softly. "We all pick up tabs. I'll carry this one to my grave." Last week the former Supreme Court justice went to his grave at age 90. By "this one," Mr. Blackmun was referring to his authorship of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling that overturned the abortion laws of all 50 states and helped fuel the cultural war that rages to this day. Mr. Blackmun moved steadily leftward during his tenure on the Supreme Court. Appointed by President Nixon in 1970, he was considered a conservative who would interpret laws instead of legislating from the bench. But by the end of his career, court watchers considered Mr. Blackmun one of the Supreme Court's most reliably liberal votes. He almost didn't make it onto the court. Mr. Nixon nominated him only after the Senate rejected his first two choices to fill departing Justice Abe Fortas's seat. Mr. Blackmun was a boyhood friend of former Chief Justice Warren Burger in Minnesota, and was the best man in Mr. Burger's 1933 wedding. Early in his Supreme Court career, legal scholars called Mr. Blackmun the "Minnesota Twin" for his reliance on Mr. Burger, but differences strained their boyhood ties as Mr. Blackmun drifted leftward. As he grew older, Mr. Blackmun worried openly about the direction of the Supreme Court. In 1990, he told a reporter that he was one of the high court's three "old goats." (Fellow liberal Justices William J. Brennan and Thurgood Marshall were also in their 80s at the time.) "It seems to me that before too long the court could be nine conservatives, and that surely will last into the next century," he said. But he rejoiced in 1992 when the court strengthened the abortion right in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. "Just when so many expected the darkness to fall, the flame has grown bright," he wrote in his concurring opinion. He called abortion one of the "fundamental liberties that are not to be left to the whims of an election." Even those whims went his way with the election of Bill Clinton, who appointed lockstep liberals Stephen Breyer (to replace Mr. Blackmun in 1994) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, fortifying a liberal bloc that includes Bush appointee David Souter. Despite all of his worries, Mr. Blackmun's legacy seems safe. But for that very reason, many unborn children are not. remembering blackmun
In their own words
"It is a tragedy for someone to go to his grave best remembered for denying unborn children the most basic civil liberty-the right to life."
-David O'Steen, executive director, National Right to Life Committee "With the death of Justice Harry Blackmun, America has lost a great humanitarian-a true 20th-century hero who will be remembered well into the next millennium. Although Justice Blackmun's distinguished career had far greater impact than one decision alone, it is Roe vs. Wade ... that will be indelibly associated with his name."
-Gloria Feldt, president, Planned Parenthood Federation of America "We have a special connection to Justice Blackmun. For the past six years, we have honored outstanding pro-choice individuals and organizations with the Justice Harry A. Blackmun Reproductive Freedom Award."
-Dorothy Mann, executive director, Family Planning Council "This man managed to move the words of the Constitution far enough ... [to find] the right to abortion."
-Janet Parshall, national advocate, Family Research Council "Today Mr. Blackmun's knee is bowing before the court that truly is supreme."
-Flip Benham, national director, Operation Rescue religious liberty set back at least 15 yards
Flag on the play
Football games are simply not "solemn" enough to be kicked off with a student-led prayer. Or so said two of three federal appeals judges last week in a case from Texas. Perhaps underestimating how seriously Texans take high-school football, Judge Jacques Wiener wrote for the majority of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that football games are "hardly the sober type of annual event that can be appropriately solemnized with prayer." Without the requisite solemnity, the court held, the prayers are unconstitutional. Before you grab your pocket copy of the Constitution: "Solemnity" is not mentioned in the First Amendment. This ruling arises from the Supreme Court's current guiding principles of adjudicating church-state matters: Expressions of religiosity on public property must meet three conditions in order to pass "constitutional" muster, and one of them is that they must have a "secular purpose." It's the "Lemon test," created by the Supreme Court in a 1971 case, Lemon vs. Kurtzman. Subsequently, federal courts have held that bland prayers at graduation ceremonies meet the "secular purpose" standard because they "solemnize" the events. Last week's case focused on the Santa Fe Independent School District, near Houston, which wanted to allow prayers before football games and also wanted to allow students to refer to Jesus at graduation ceremonies. Two parents sued in 1995, claiming such prayers violated the "separation of church and state." Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union threw the key blocks that moved the lawsuit up the field. The ACLU saw "a pattern and practice of advancing Christianity by Santa Fe I.S.D., in violation of the First Amendment." The court agreed. Touchdown! Might this play be called back? Religious liberty advocates believe they have a strong case: "The government has no right to control the content of our children's prayers," said Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel for the Liberty Legal Institute. "The decision is wrong, flat wrong and extremely dangerous." The one dissenting judge in the case lamented the precedent, if allowed to stand. "Today, for the first time in our court's history, the majority expressly exerts control over the content of its citizens' prayers," 5th Circuit Appeals Judge Grady Jolly wrote. Nevertheless, the court's decision is a setback to those who promoted student-led prayers as an alternative to the teacher-led prayers banned by the Supreme Court since 1962. A similar decision was handed down two years ago, when U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent struck down an Alabama law that allowed "nonsectarian, nonproselytizing, student-initiated, voluntary prayers" at all school-related events. The Supreme Court refused to consider an appeal in that case. The no-comment zone
- The Internal Revenue Service got a taste of its own medicine last week: an audit. A General Accounting Office report issued last week revealed that the IRS sent out millions of dollars in fraudulent refunds last year, can't keep track of such internal assets as cars and computers, and has lousy computer security. Said the GAO's Gregory Kutz: "The IRS cannot do some of the basic accounting and record-keeping tasks that it expects American taxpayers to do."
- An elite ethics panel, chaired by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, blamed a "culture of gift-giving" created by the International Olympic Committee for the bribery scandal regarding Salt Lake City's winning bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics. The panel called for reform from the top down.
- The California Supreme Court suspended the murder prosecution of abortionist Bruce Steir, ordering a review of whether pro-life politics motivated the charge against him. Prosecutors claim that he failed to call for emergency assistance, even though he knew he had perforated a patient's uterus. The patient bled to death on the way home from the abortion facility.
- Texas Gov. George W. Bush announced the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, taking the first formal step in a long-expected bid for the White House in 2000. Pat Buchanan officially declared his candidacy, marking his third straight run for the Republican nomination on an anti-trade and anti-immigration platform.
- Concerned about potential Y2K computer glitches, U.S. officials said last week Russian monitors will be allowed access to U.S. missile launch warning data from mid-December to mid-January to make sure a computer error is not mistaken for the start of World War III. U.S.-China relations
Albright: Speak no evil
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met thunderclouds in Beijing and called it a fine spring day. Despite disagreements with the communist government over weapons buildup, human rights, trade issues, and a missile defense for Taiwan, Mrs. Albright said bilateral ties between China and the United States were on track after a two-day visit to China last week. Speaking after a meeting with President Jiang Zemin, she said, "All told it's fair to say that in our relations with China these are neither the best of times nor the worst of times." Forty-eight hours before she arrived in Beijing, the State Department issued its annual human-rights report, including the usual harsh criticism of the Chinese government for jailing dissidents and hampering basic freedoms. Beijing remained uncowed, detaining dissident Wu Yilong and sentencing democracy advocate Peng Ming to labor camp on the eve of Mrs. Albright's arrival. In a turnabout, Beijing also instigated its own report on human rights in the United States, published in the English-language China Daily during Mrs. Albright's visit. It cited discrimination against blacks and Native Americans, high crime, low voter turnout, and a press controlled by "owners or shareholders of the country's most powerful TV stations and newspapers" as evidence that the United States falls below the human-rights bar. "The U.S. government needs to keep its eyes on its own human rights situation, mind its own business, and avoid interfering in the internal affairs of other countries," the paper concluded. World in brief
- International abortion pork
International Planned Parenthood, the Population Council, and the Audubon Society joined with pro-abortion forces in Congress in a bid to reinstate U.S. funds for the UN Family Planning Agency. A bill introduced by Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Connie Morella (R-Md.) would give UNFPA $25 million in 2000 and $35 million in 2001. American Life League president Judie Brown urged Congress to reject the measure: "The business of death is no place for the United States Congress to invest 25 million American tax dollars." Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) agrees. He has made continued U.S. support for the UN contingent upon not supporting its abortion activities.
- Feeling sick? Don't go Dutch
A February report in the Journal of Medical Ethics said one in five cases of assisted suicide occurring in Holland takes place without the patient's consent. The survey also revealed that nearly two-thirds of Dutch euthanasia cases in 1995 were not reported, as is required under the law. David Stevens, director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society, said the survey showed that "physicians know it is dangerous for them to have the power to kill patients. Assisted suicide cannot be regulated or controlled, no matter how many safeguards are built in to protect patients from involuntary euthanasia." African rebels target foreigners
Hutus kill two Americans
It was billed as the ultimate getaway. That's why Danja Walthers, 23, was encouraged to take the African safari to remote Bwindi National Park in Uganda's western mountains. A flight attendant from Switzerland who narrowly missed being aboard the Swissair jet that crashed last year near Halifax, she was grieving the loss of friends in that disaster and needed an anodyne experience. Hutu rebels put an end to that. On Feb. 28 the band of rebels from Rwanda captured over a dozen foreigners and their Ugandan guides. The rebels slaughtered eight tourists, including two Americans, using machetes. Four British citizens and two New Zealanders were also among the dead. Four Ugandans, a game warden, and three park rangers were killed as well. The two dead Americans were Rob Haubner, 48, and his wife, Susan Miller, 42, from Oregon, who were on their third trip to Africa. At least six tourists, including Swissair's Ms. Walthers, escaped after being kidnapped and forced into the jungle. The rebels say they are angry at the United States, Britain, and Uganda for providing aid to Rwanda's new Tutsi-led government. In notes left on the victims' bodies, the rebels said: "Americans and British, we don't want you on our land. You support our enemy." FBI agents joined Ugandan security forces on a manhunt to track the rebels, who reportedly fled to a base in Congo. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni apologized for the killings, which he blamed on the rebels and the "laxity of our own people." A London newspaper said rebels wrote letters to Ugandan authorities two weeks prior to the attack warning that Britons and Americans would be targeted. Those threats were not passed on to British tour operators or diplomats, the paper said. The incident raises concerns about security under the government of Mr. Museveni, which is considered among the most stable in Africa. It also resurrects worry about the safety of Americans in Africa, following last year's twin bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.