Retired Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun Dies at 90

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WASHINGTON: Harry A. Blackmun, one of the most controversial Supreme Court Justices in American history, has died at age 90 from complications stemming from hip surgery. Appointed to the bench in 1970 by Richard Nixon, Blackmun, a lifelong Republican, will nonetheless be remembered for his liberal instincts, most famously his 1973 majority opinion that legalized abortion. The impact of that decision was explosive and enduring. Blackmun himself received some 60,000 pieces of hate mail (all of which he read) that called him a murderer and an agent of genocide.

Nixon thought he had appointed a "strict constructionist," a conservative jurist who would read the law narrowly. But over his 24 years on the court, Blackmun showed his independence -- reliably conservative on law-and-order issues, while increasingly concerned with the practical impact of his decisions, putting victims' needs first and trumpeting the rights of individuals over the state. "Like Harry Truman, Harry Blackmun really grew in office," notes TIME senior reporter Alain Sanders, who covered Blackmun during much of the Justice's career. "Early on he was viewed as second-rate, the Minnesota twin of Warren Burger," Sanders notes. "But over time he split with the Chief Justice, finding his own voice on the court." Indeed, ever an open mind, Blackmun reversed his support for capital punishment in 1994. "I shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death," he wrote.

Born in Nashville, Ill., Blackmun grew up in St. Paul and Minneapolis. After earning a degree in mathematics from Harvard, he attended Harvard Law School, practicing law privately until 1959, when President Eisenhower appointed him to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and his three daughters.