Blackmun's Books: What a Justice Read and What it Means for a Justice to "Read"


Justice Harry Blackmun described Benjamin N. Cardozo’s The Nature of the Judicial Process as “a somewhat disappointing book.” A rummage in the folder labeled “Books – Read by Blackmun, lists – 1973-1997” in the Blackmun Papers at the Library of Congress turns up a possible reason for Blackmun’s less-than-friendly reaction to Cardozo’s great book – the book that brought Cardozo “national fame as well as that idolatrous regard of the law schools which eventually propelled him to the highest court of the land.” Possibly, Blackmun’s disappointment was a matter of context. Possibly, The Nature of the Judicial Process, as great a work as it may be, just did not measure up to some of the other books Blackmun was reading at the time – books that he might have seen as better-written, or more thought-provoking, or more informative, or more fun. It is certainly possible, because the bibliographic competition for Blackmun’s admiration was both diverse and high-powered during the summer he read Cardozo. What to make of such speculation about Blackmun and his books depends in part on what we seek. Four reasons to study the reading habits and judgments of Supreme Court Justices come to mind (and there are surely more): (1) our perennial and important interests in understanding both why they did what they have done – that is, their decisions and opinions in cases past – and what they might do next – that is, their decisions and opinions in pending and future cases (as Eleanor Little observed in The Early Reading of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The importance of [Holmes’s] reading lists is that they reflect the influence of other minds on Holmes’s own thought . . .”); (2) a general interest in learning something about the minds and characters of our public leaders from how they speak and write about books, reading, and learning, with an eye to choices we might make as citizens and role models we might emulate as individuals; (3) a far less important but not unreasonable interest in the reading (and listening, and watching, and traveling, and so on) choices made by clever, thoughtful, accomplished individuals, because we might want to try some of the same things; and (4) a perennial but trivial interest in every detail of the lives of celebrities, the Justices being among the biggest celebrities in the law. Why else would we need to know about every opera or baseball game or seminar they attend? Alas, all of these topics are beyond the scope of this little article, because they all depend on the resolution of the preliminary issue addressed below: The quality and reliability of the evidence.