September 15, 2008

Lecture on Supreme Court marks Constitution Day

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A lecture at Southern Illinois University Carbondale later this week will provide a glimpse into some of the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Paul E. McGreal, a professor in the SIU School of Law, will discuss “Lessons from the Margins: My Work with the Blackmun Papers.” The forum is at noon, Wednesday, Sept. 17, in the law school courtroom, room 108. The lecture is free and open to the public.

McGreal spent a total of five days this summer reviewing a portion of the papers of the late Harry A. Blackmun, an associate justice with the U.S. Supreme Court from 1970 to 1994. Blackmun, who was born in Nashville, Ill., in 1908, was in the forefront of many of the nation’s legal decisions for more than 20 years, including as author of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade majority decision on abortion rights.

Blackmun died in 1999 at the age of 90.

The event is part of Constitution Day, which is also on Wednesday. All educational institutions funded with federal money must annually deliver programs on the U.S. Constitution in September.

McGreal spent time looking for background on U.S. Supreme Court cases he utilizes in teaching his classes -- which include constitutional law, the First Amendment, and religion and law. At Blackmun’s stipulation, his papers, presented to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1997, became available to researchers five years after his death. The papers “are expected to add to knowledge of the court’s interpretation of constitutional law over three decades,” according to the Library of Congress.

Justices do not publicly discuss case deliberations, and court clerks also are sworn to secrecy, McGreal said. Blackmun’s papers total 1,585 boxes, which the Library of Congress indicates is “one of the largest federal judicial collections.”

Blackmun’s papers reflect considerations during deliberations. McGreal said. The papers also show that justices’ final decisions sometimes changed from their initial votes on cases.

The papers, which include handwritten notes, reflect internal debates, the issues raised, and questions raised by justices.

“It gives you insights into what the Court was focusing on when they decided certain issues,” he said. “He spans a very controversial and exciting period in the court’s history.”

McGreal was able to look into about 50 or 60 cases. Blackmun is unusual “because it seems he kept every scrap of paper passed to him while he sat on the bench,” McGreal said.

He noted that in reviewing one particular case, he found a note where Blackmun referred to a larger argument in another case. Blackmun’s files also seem to include every letter he received, including hate mail.

Blackmun heard more than 2,000 cases while on the bench, including the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate tapes case, gender equity, and the 1992 decision involving school prayer at high school graduations.

McGreal said he will continue his research, and plans to produce scholarly articles from his research.

Raised in Minnesota, Blackmun graduated from Harvard Law School in 1932. President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Blackmun to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 1959. President Richard Nixon nominated Blackmun to the Supreme Court in April 1970, and Blackmun received Senate confirmation one month later.