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Blackmun To Retire From High Court at End of Term

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Washington

Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun announced last week that he will retire from the U.S. Supreme Court at the end of its current term, giving President Clinton his second opportunity in as many years to nominate a new justice.

Justice Blackmun, appointed by President Nixon in 1970, is a lifelong Republican who was once considered conservative but has become the Court's most liberal member in recent years.

The Minnesota native is best known as the author of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that declared laws barring abortion to be an unconstitutional infringement of privacy rights. He has not written majority opinions in many key education cases during his 24-year tenure on the High Court.

One exception was a 5-to-4 decision in a 1982 case involving a Washington State ballot initiative that barred mandatory busing for desegregation.

Justice Blackmun's majority opinion in Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1 found that the initiative violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment because it reallocated power from local school districts to the state in a way that put a burden on the interests of a minority group.

Two years ago, in a desegregation case from suburban Atlanta, Justice Blackmun wrote a concurrence to emphasize what factors judges should consider before releasing districts from court supervision.

"An integrated school system is no less desirable because it is difficult to achieve, and it is no less a constitutional imperative because that imperative has gone unmet for 38 years,'' he wrote in Freeman v. Pitts.

Church-State Separation

Justice Blackmun has been a staunch defender of the separation of church and state, voting with the five-member majority in the 1992 decision holding that a cleric's prayers at a Rhode Island graduation ceremony were an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

"The mixing of government and religion is a threat to free government, even if no one is forced to participate,'' he wrote in a concurrence in Lee v. Weisman.

Last year, in a dissent to a 5-to-4 decision that allowed a public school district to provide a sign-language interpreter to a deaf student in a Roman Catholic school, Justice Blackmun declared that the decision marked the first time the Court "has authorized a public employee to participate directly in religious indoctrination.''

Justice Blackmun wrote one of his most passionate dissents in a 1989 case involving a Wisconsin boy, Joshua DeShaney, who was beaten into a coma by his father. The Court ruled 6 to 3 that a county social-services department's failure to adequately protect the child from abuse, after receiving reports of earlier beatings, did not deprive him of his liberty under the due-process-of-law guarantee of the 14th Amendment.

"Poor Joshua!'' Justice Blackmun wrote in DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services. "It is a sad commentary upon American life, and constitutional principles ... that this child, Joshua DeShaney, now is assigned to live out the remainder of his life profoundly retarded.''

Justice Blackmun said he would leave the High Court when his successor is approved by the Senate, but not later than Sept. 25.

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