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Brooklyn Law Review


Justice Blackmun, jurisprudence, law and religion


Justice Harry A. Blackmun died on March 4, 1999 at the age of 90. The public funeral was held on March 9, at the huge and impressive Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, on Nebraska Avenue in Washington, D.C. Among the many speakers at this "Service of Death and Resurrection" was the Rev. Dr. William A. Holmes, senior pastor at the Church, speaking on "The Churchmanship of Harry Blackmun." Dr. Holmes talked movingly of a man who was intimately involved in the affairs of his church. Among the Justice's many contributions, Holmes noted a sermon that Blackmun had once preached on the Book of Ruth. Dr. Holmes concluded his eulogy by remarking that Justice Blackmun's theory of Constitutional interpretation was the same as his theory of Biblical interpretation: a theory grounded in compassion.

On March 4, 2004 the Justice's papers became available to the public through the Library of Congress. In addition to the sermon on the Book of Ruth, preached in 1992, there was a second sermon, preached in 1987 on the bicentennial of the Constitution. In this essay I will describe how these sermons connect to and illuminate the Justice's jurisprudence. First, I will describe Blackmun's religious upbringing and interests. Next, I will summarize the two sermons. Then I will show how the sermons relate to each other, and to one of the Justice's most famous opinions: his dissent in DeShaney v. Winnebago County D.S.S.

One might ask why the sermons of a sitting Justice would be thought to shed any light at all on his jurisprudence, especially in a Justice who, like Blackmun, was careful of the boundaries between church and state. As I show below, recent scholarship has focused on the parallels and similarities between Constitutional and Biblical interpretation. In this essay, I take seriously Dr. Holmes's closing comment and I ask: How similar was Blackmun's interpretive approach to the Constitution and to the Bible?